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Full text of "A literary history of Ireland from earliest times to the present day"

Digitized by the Internet Archive 
in 2013 



http://archive.org/details/literaryhistoryoOOhyde 



The Librar 



y 



of 



Literary History 



Cjp f ibrarg of f iterarg History 



A LITERARY HISTORY OF INDIA. By R. W. 
Frazer, LL.B. 

A LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND. By Douglas 
Hyde, LL.D. 

A LITERARY HISTORY OF AMERICA. By Barrett 
Wendell. 

A LITERARY HISTORY OF SCOTLAND. By J. H. 
Millar, LL.B. 

A LITERARY HISTORY OF PERSIA. By Edward 
G. Browne, M.A. (In Two Volumes.) 

Other Volumes in Preparation. 

A LITERARY HISTORY OF RUSSIA. By E. H. 

Minns. 

A LITERARY HISTORY OF ARABIA. By R. A. 
Nicholson, M.A. 

A LITERARY HISTORY OF ROME. By J. Wight 
Duff, M.A. 

A LITERARY HISTORY OF THE JEWS. By Israel 
Abrahams, M.A. 

A LITERARY HISTORY OF SPAIN. By James Fitz- 
maurice-Kelly. 

A LITERARY HISTORY OF FRANCE. 

ETC. ETC. ETC. 



THE LI BR ART 

OF 

LITERARY HISTORY 



A Literary History of Ireland 



CASE OF 

MOLAISE'S 

GOSPELS. 



Literary History 
of Ireland 



From Earliest Times to the Present Day 



By 

Douglas Hyde, LL.D., M.R.I.A.v 

[An Craoibhin Aoibhinn] 



FOURTH IMPRESSION 



London 
T. Fisher Unwin 

Adelphi Terrace 
1906 



139530 



pe> \yoi* 



[All rights reserved.] 



OeDication. 



TO THE MEMBERS OF THE GAELIC LEAGUE, 

THE ONLY BODY IN IRELAND WHICH APPEARS TO 

REALISE THE FACT THAT IRELAND HAS A PAST, HAS A 

HISTORY, HAS A LITERATURE, AND THE ONLY BODY IN 

IRELAND WHICH SEEKS TO RENDER THE PRESENT A 

RATIONAL CONTINUATION OF THE PAST, 

I DEDICATE 

THIS ATTEMPT AT A REVIEW OF THAT LITERATURE 

WHICH DESPITE ITS PRESENT NEGLECTED POSITION 

THEY FEEL AND KNOW TO BE A TRUE 

POSSESSION OF NATIONAL 

IMPORTANCE. 



DO CHONNRADH NA GAEDHEILGE. 

A Chonnradh chaoin, a Chonnradh choir, 
Rinn obair mhdr gan or gan cabhair, 

Glacaidh an cios a dlighim daoibh, 

Guidhim, glacaidh go caoimh mo leabhar. 

A chdirde cleibh is iomdha la 

D ' oibrigheamar go bredgh le cheile, 
Gan clampar, agus fds gan ead, 

'S da mhead dr dieas', gan puinn di-cheille. 

Chuireabhar suil 'san bhfear bhi dall, 
Thugabhar cluas don fhear bhi bodhar, 

Glacaidh an cios do bheirim daoibh, 
Guidhim, glacaidh go caoimh mo leabhar. 



PREFACE 



The present volume has been styled — in order to make it a 
companion book to other of Mr. Unwin's publications— a 
" Literary History of Ireland," but a " Literary History of 
Irish Ireland " would be a more correct title, for I have ab- 
stained altogether from any analysis or even mention of the 
works of Anglicised Irishmen of the last two centuries. Their 
books, as those of Farquhar, of Swift, of Goldsmith, of Burke, 
find, and have always found, their true and natural place in 
every history of English literature that has been written, 
whether by Englishmen themselves or by foreigners. 

My object in this volume has been to give a general view of 
the literature produced by the Irish-speaking Irish, and to 
reproduce by copious examples some of its more salient, or at 
least more characteristic features. 

In studying the literature itself, both that of the past and 
that of the present, one of the things which has most forcibly 
struck me is the marked absence of the purely personal note, 
the absence of great predominating names, or of great pre- 
dominating works ; while just as striking is the almost uni- 
versal diffusion of a traditional literary taste and a love of 
literature in the abstract amongst all classes of the native Irish. 
The whole history of Irish literature shows how warmly the 
efforts of all who assisted in its production were appreciated. 



IX 



x PREFACE 

The greatest English bard of the Elizabethan age was allowed 
by his countrymen to perish of poverty in the streets of 
London, while the pettiest chief of the meanest clan would 
have been proud to lay his hearth and home and a share of his 
wealth at the disposal of any Irish " ollamh." The love for 
literature of a traditional type, in song, in poem, in saga, 
was, I think, more nearly universal in Ireland than in any 
country of western Europe, and her*ce that which appears to 
me to be of most value in ancient Irish literature is not that 
whose authorship is known, but rather the mass of traditional 
matter which seems to have grown up almost spontaneously, 
and slowly shaped itself into the literary possession of an entire 
nation. An almost universal acquaintance with a traditional 
literature was a leading trait amongst the Irish down to the 
last century, when every barony and almost every townland 
still possessed its poet and reciter, and song, recitation, music, 
and oratory were the recognised amusements of nearly the 
whole population. That population in consequence, so far as 
wit and readiness of language and power of expression went, 
had almost all attained a remarkably high level, without how- 
ever producing any one of a commanding eminence. In col- 
lecting the floating literature of the present day also, the 
unknown traditional poems and the Ossianic ballads and the 
stories of unknown authorship are of greater value than the 
pieces of bards who are known and named. In both cases, 
that of the ancient and that of the modern Irish, all that is of 
most value as literature, was the property and in some sense 
the product of the people at large, and it exercised upon them 
a most striking and potent influence. And this influence may 
be traced amongst the Irish-speaking population even at the 
present day, who have, I may almost say, one and all, a re- 
markable command of language and a large store of traditional 
literature learned by heart, which strongly differentiates them 
from the Anglicised products of the " National Schools " to 
the bulk of whom poetry is an unknown term, and amongst 



PREFACE xi 

whom there exists little or no trace of traditional Irish feelings, 
or indeed seldom of any feelings save those prompted by (when 
they read it) a weekly newspaper. 

The exact extent of the Irish literature still remaining in 
manuscript has never been adequately determined. M. d'Arbois 
de Jubainville has noted 133 still existing manuscripts, all 
copied before the year 1600, and the whole number which he 
has found existing chiefly in public libraries on the Continent 
and in the British Isles amounts to 1,009. But man y others 
have since been discovered, and great numbers must be 
scattered throughout the country in private libraries, and 
numbers more are perishing or have recently perished of 
neglect since the " National Schools " were established. 
Jubainville quotes a German as estimating that the literature 
produced by the Irish before the seventeenth century, and 
still existing, would fill a thousand octavo volumes. It is hard 
to say, however, how much of this could be called literature in 
a true sense of the word, since law, medicine, and science were 
probably included in the calculation. O'Curry, O'Longan, 
and O'Beirne Crowe catalogued something more than half the 
manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy, and the catalogue of 
contents filled thirteen volumes containing 3,448 pages. To 
these an alphabetic index of the pieces contained was made in 
three volumes, and an index of the principal names, etc., in 
thirteen volumes more. From a rough calculation, based on 
an examination of these, I should place the number of different 
pieces catalogued by them at about ten thousand, ranging from 
single quatrains or even single sentences to long poems and 
epic sagas. But in the Academy alone, there are nearly as 
many more manuscripts which still remain uncatalogued. 

It is probably owing to the extreme difficulty of arriving at 
any certain conclusions as to the real extent of Irish literature 
that no attempt at a consecutive history of it has ever pre- 
viously been made. Despite this difficulty, there is no doubt 
that such a work would long ago have been attempted had it 



xii PREFACE 

not been for the complete breakdown and destruction of Irish 
Ireland which followed the Great Famine, and the unexpected 
turn given to Anglo-Irish literature by the efforts of the 
Young Ireland School to compete with the English in their 
own style, their own language, and their own models. 

For the many sins of omission and commission in this 
volume I must claim the reader's kind indulgence ; nobody can 
be better aware of its shortcomings than I myself, and the only 
excuse that I can plead is that over so much of the ground I have 
had to be my own pioneer. I confidently hope, however, that 
in the renewed interest now being taken in our native civi- 
lisation and native literature some scholar far more fully 
equipped for his task than I, may soon render this volume 
superfluous by an ampler, juster, and more artistic treatment 
of what is really a subject of great national importance. 

National or important, however, it does not appear to be 
considered in these islands, where outside of the University of 
Oxford — which has given noble assistance to the cause of Celtic ! 
studies — sympathisers are both few and far between. Indeed, 
I fancy that anybody who has applied himself to the subject of 
Celtic literature would have a good deal to tell about the 
condescending contempt with which his studies have been 
regarded by his fellows. " I shall not easily forget," said Dr 
Petrie, addressing a meeting of the Royal Irish Academy upon 
that celebrated example of early Celtic workmanship the Tara I 
Brooch, "that when in reference to the existence of a similar 
remain of ancient Irish art, I had first the honour to address 
myself to a meeting of this high institution, I had to encounter 
the incredulous astonishment of the illustrious Dr. Brinkley" 
[of Trinity College, President of the Academy] " which was 
implied in the following remark, i Surely, sir, you do not mean i 
to tell us that there exists the slightest evidence to prove that 
the Irish had any acquaintance with the arts of civilised life 
anterior to the arrival in Ireland of the English ?' nor shall I I 



PREFACE xiii 

forget that in the scepticism which this remark implied nearly 
all the members present very obviously participated." Exactly 
the same feeling which Dr. Petrie encountered was prevalent 
in my own alma mater in the eighties, where one of our most 
justly popular lecturers said — in gross ignorance but perfect 
good faith — that the sooner the Irish recognised that before the 
arrival of Cromwell they were utter savages, the better it would 
be for everybody concerned ! Indeed, it was only the other 
day that one of our ablest and best known professors protested 
publicly in the Contemporary Review against the enormity of 
an Irish bishop signing so moderate, and I am sure so reason- 
able a document, as a petition asking to have Irish children 
who knew no English, taught through the medium of the 
language which they spoke. Last year, too, another most 
learned professor of Dublin University went out of his way to 
declare that a the mass of material preserved [in the Irish 
manuscripts] is out of all proportion to its value as 'literature," 
and to insist that " in the enormous mass of Irish MSS. pre- 
served, there is absolutely nothing that in the faintest degree 
rivals the splendours of the vernacular literatures of the Middle 
Ages," that " their value as literature is but small," and that 
"for educational purposes save in this limited sense [of linguistic 
study] they are wholly unsuited," winding up with the extra- 
ordinary assertion that " there is no solid ground for supposing 
that the tales current at the time of our earliest MSS. were 
much more numerous than the tales of which fragments have 
come down to us." As to the civilisation of the early Irish 
upon which Petrie insisted, there is no longer room for the 
very shadow of a doubt ; but whether the literature which they 
produced is so utterly valueless as this, and so utterly devoid of 
all interest as " literature," the reader of this volume must 
judge for himself. I should be glad also if he were to institute 
a comparison between " the splendours of the vernacular 
literatures " of Germany, England, Spain, and even Italy and 
France, prior to the year iooo, and that of the Irish, for I am 



xiv PRE FA CE 

very much mistaken if in their early development of rhyme, 
alone, in their masterly treatment of sound, and in their 
absolutely unique and marvellous system of verse-forms, the 
Irish will not be found to have created for themselves a place 
alone and apart in the history of European literatures. |/ 

I hardly know a sharper contrast in the history of human 
thought than the true traditional literary instinct which four 
years ago prompted fifty thousand poor hard-working Irishmen 
in the United States to contribute each a dollar towards the 
foundation of a Celtic chair in the Catholic University of 
Washington in the land of their adoption, choosing out a fit 
man and sending him to study under the great Celticists of 
Germany, in the hope that his scholarship might one day 
reflect credit upon the far-off country of their birth ; while in 
that very country, by far the richest college in the British Isles, 
one of the wealthiest universities in the world, allows its so- 
called " Irish professorship " to be an adjunct of its Divinity 
School, founded and paid by a society for — the conversion of 
Irish Roman Catholics through the medium of their own 
language ! 

This is the more to be regretted because had the unique 
manuscript treasures now shut up in cases in the underground 
room of Trinity College Library, been deposited in any other 
seat of learning in Europe, in Paris, Rome, Vienna, or Berlin, 
there would long ago have been trained up scholars to read 
them, a catalogue of them would have been published, and 
funds would have been found to edit them. At present the 
Celticists of Europe are placed under the great disadvantage of 
having to come over to Dublin University to do the work that 
it is not doing for itself. 

It is fortunate however that the spread of education within 
the last few years (due perhaps partly to the establishment 
of the Royal University, partly to the effects of Intermediate 
Education, and partly to the numerous literary societies which 
working upon more or less national lines have spontaneously 



PREFACE xv 

sprung up amongst the Irish people themselves) has, by taking 
the prestige of literary monopoly out of the hands of Dublin 
University, to a great extent undone the damage which had 
so long been caused to native scholarship by its attitude. 
It was the more necessary to do this, because the very fact 
that it had never taken the trouble to publish even a printed 
catalogue of its Irish manuscripts — as the British Museum 
authorities have done — was by many people interpreted, I 
believe, as a sort of declaration of their worthlessness. 

In dealing with Irish proper names I have experienced the 
same difficulty as every one else who undertakes to treat of 
Irish history. Some native names, especially those with 
" mortified " or aspirated letters, look so unpronounceable as to 
prove highly disconcerting to an English reader. The system 
I have followed is to leave the Irish orthography untouched, 
but in cases where the true pronunciation differed appreciably 
from the sound which an English reader would give the letters, 
I have added a phonetic rendering of the Irish form in 
brackets, as " Muighmheadhon [Mwee-va-on], Lughaidh 
[Lewy]." There are a few names such as Ossian, Meve, 
Donough, Murrough and others, which have been almost 
adopted into English, and these forms I have generally retained 
— perhaps wrongly — but my desire has been to throw no unne- 
cessary impediments in the way of an English reader ; I have 
always given the true Irish form at least once. Where the 
word cc mac " is not part of a proper name, but really means 
"son of" as in Finn mac Cumhail, I have printed it with 
a small "m"; and in such names as " Cormac mac Art" 
I have usually not inflected the last word, but have written 
" Art " not " Airt," so as to avoid as far as possible confusing 
the English reader. 

I very much regret that I have found it impossible, owing 
to the brief space of time between printing and publication, 
to submit the following chapters to any of my friends for 



xvi PREFACE 

their advice and criticism. I beg, however, to here express 
my best thanks to my friend Father Edmund Hogan, S.J., 
for the numerous memoranda which he was kind enough to 
give me towards the last chapter of this book, that on the 
history of Irish as a spoken language, and also to express my 
regret that the valuable critical edition of the Book of Hymns 
by Dr. Atkinson and Dr. Bernard, M. Bertrand's " Religion 
Gauloise," and Miss Hull's interesting volume on " Cuchullin 
Saga," which should be read in connection with my chapters 
on the Red Branch cycle, appeared too late for me to make 
use of. 

Rath-Treagh, oidhche Samhna 
mdcccxcix. 



CONTENTS 



CHAP. 

I. 

- II. 

III. 

IV. 

V. 

VI. 

VII. 

I VIII. 

I IX. 

1 X. 

• XI. 

XII. 

XIII. 

XIV. 

XV. 

XVI. 

XVII. 

XVIII. 



Who Were the Celts ? 

Earliest Allusions to Ireland from Foreign 

Sources ..... 
Early History Drawn frOiM Native Sources 
How Far Can Native Sources be Relied on ? 
The Pre-Milesian Fable and Early Pantheon 
Evidence of Topography and Genealogy 
Documentary Evidence 
Confusion Between Gods and Men 
Druidism ..... 

The Irish Elysium and Belief in Rebirth 
Early Use of Letters, Ogam and Roman 
Early Irish Civilisation 
St. Patrick and the Early Missionaries 
St. Brigit ..... 

columcille ..... 
The First Schools of Christian Ireland 
Their Fame and Teaching . 
Conflicts with the Civil Power . 



PAC.H 

I 

17 
25 
38 

44 

56 
70 

77 

82 

94 
122 

TOO 

166 
192 

21* 



XV111 



CONTENTS 



CHAP. 

XIX. The Bardic Schools 

^ XX. The Suggestively Pagan Element in Irish 
Literature 

XXI. The Oldest Books and Poems . 

XXII. Early Saga and Romance 

XXIII. The Mythological Cycle 

XXIV. The Heroic or Red Branch Cycle — Cuchu 

LAIN .... 

XXV. Deirdre . . . 

XXVI. The Tain Bo Chuailgne . 

XXVII. The Death of Cuchulain 

XXVIII. Other Sagas of the Red Branch 

XXIX. The Fenian Cycle 

XXX. Miscellaneous Romance . 

XXXI. Pre-Danish Poets . 

XXXII. The Danish Period 

XXXIII. From Clontarf to the Norman Conquest 

\ XXXIV. Sudden Arrest of Irish Development 
r 

XXXV. Four Centuries of Decay 

K~ XXXVI. Development of Irish Poetry . 

XXXVII. The Ossianic Poems 

XXXVIII. The Last of the Classic Poets 

X XXXIX. Rise of a New School . 

\ rr _- XL. Prose Writers of the Seventeenth Century 

XLI. The Irish Annals. 

XLII. The Brehon Laws 

""■" — I XLIII. The Eighteenth Century 

XLIV. The History of Irish as a Spoken Language 

Index ...... 



Literary History of Ireland 



CHAPTER I 

WHO WERE THE CELTS ? 

Who were those Celts, of whose race the Irish are to-day 
perhaps the most striking representatives, and upon whose past 
the ancient literature of Ireland can best throw light ? 

Like the Greeks, like the Romans, like the English, this 
great people, which once ruled over a fourth of Europe, sprang 
from a small beginning and from narrow confines. The 
earliest home of the race from which they spread their conquer- 
ing arms may be said, roughly speaking, to have lain along 
both banks of the upper Danube, and in that portion of 
Europe comprised to-day in the kingdoms of Bavaria and 
Wiirtemberg and the Grand Duchy of Baden, with the 
country drained by the river Maine to the east of the Rhine 
basin. In other words, the Celtic race and the Celtic language 
sprang from the heart of what is to-day modern Germany, and 
issuing thence established for over two centuries a vast empire 
held together by the ties of political unity and a common 
language over all North-west and Central Europe. 

The vast extent of the territory conquered and colonised by 
the Celts, and the unity of their speech, may be conjectured 
from an examination of the place-names of Celtic origin which 

a i 



2 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

either still exist or figure as having existed in Europeai 
history. 1 

The Celts seem to have been first known to Greek — that is, 
to European history — under the semi-mythological name ol 
the Hyperboreans, 2 an appellation which remained in force 
from the sixth to the fourth century before Christ. Th< 
name Celt or Kelt 3 first makes its appearance towards the ye; 
500 B.C., in the geography of Hecataeus of Miletum, and 
thereafter used successively by Herodotus, Xenophon, Plato, 
and Aristotle, and from that time forward it seems to have 
been employed by the Greek scholars and historians as a 
generic term whereby to designate the Celts of the Continent. 

Soon afterwards the word Galatian came also into use,4 and 
was used as a synonym for Celt. In the first century B.C., 
however, the discovery was made that the Germans and the 
Celts, who had been hitherto confounded in the popular esti- 
mation, were really two different peoples, a fact which Julius 
Caesar was almost the first to point out. Diodorus Siculus, 



1 Take, for instance, the Celtic word duno-n, Latinised dunum, which is 
the Irish dun " castle " or " fortress," so common in Irish topography, as in 
Dunmore, Dunsink, Shandun, &c. There are over a dozen instances of 
this word in France, nearly as many in Great Britain, more than half a 
dozen in Spain, eight or nine in Germany, three in Austria, a couple in 
the Balkan States, three more in Switzerland, one at least (Lug-dun, now 
Leyden) in the Low Countries, one in Portugal, one in Piedmont, one in 
South Russia. 

Celtic was once spoken from Ireland to the Black Sea, although the 
population who can now speak Celtic dialects is not more than three or four 
millions. As for Celtic archaeological remains " on les trouve tant dans 
nos musees nationaux (en particulier au Musee de Saint Germain) que dans 
les collections publiques de la Hongrie, de l'Autriche, de la Hesse, de la 
Boheme, du Wurtemburg, du pays de Bade, de la Suisse, de lTtalie 
(Bertrand and Reinach, p. 3). 

2 T7rep€opeiog. 

3 KeXrog . The Greeks, the Latins, and the Celts themselves pronounced 
Kelt, as do the modern Germans. It is against the genius of the French 
language to pronounce the c hard, but not against that of the English, who 
consequently had better say Kelt. 

4 TakaTTjg. 



WHO WERE THE CELTS? 3 

accordingly, struck by this discovery, translates Caesar's Gallus 
or Gaul by the word Celt, and his Germanus or German by 
the word Galatian, while the other Greek historian, Dion Cassius, 
does the exact opposite, calling the Celts " Galatians," and the 
Germans "Celts " ! The examples thus set, however, were the 
result of ignorance and were never followed. Plutarch treats 
the two words as identical, as do Strabo, Pausanias and all 
other Greek writers. 

The word Celt itself is probably of very ancient origin, and 
was, no doubt, in use 800 or 1,000 years before Christ. 1 It 
cannot, however, be proved that it is a generic Celtic name for 
the Celtic race, and none of the present Celtic-speaking races 
have preserved it in their dialects. Jubainville derives it, very 
doubtfully I should think, from a Celtic root found in the old 
Irish verb "ar-CHELL-aim" ("I plunder") and the old substantive 
to-CHELL ("victory") ; while he derives Galatian from a Celtic 
substantive now represented by the Irish gal 2 ("bravery"). 
This latter word " Galatian " is one which the German peoples 
never adopted, and it appears to have only come into use sub- 
sequently to their revolt against their Celtic masters. After the 
break-up of the Celtic Empire it was employed to designate the 
eastern portion of the race, while the inhabitants of Gaul were 
called Celtae and those of Spain Celtici or Celtiberi, but the 
Greeks called all indifferently by the common name of Galatians. 

The Romans termed the Celts Galli, or Gauls, but they 
used the geographical term Gallia, or Gaul, in a restricted 
sense, first for the country inhabited by the Celts in North 

1 As is proved, according to Jubainville, by its having made its way 
into German before the so-called Laut-verschiebung took place, to the 
laws of which it submitted, for out of Celtis, the feminine form of it, they 
have made Childis, as in the Frank-Merovingian Bruni-Childis or 
Brunhild, and the old Scandinavian Hildr, the war-goddess. 

2 This was actually a living word as recently as ten years ago. I knew 
an old man who often used it in the sense of "spirit," " fire," "energy " : 
he used to say cuir gal aim, meaning do it bravely, energetically. This 
was in the county Roscommon. I cannot say that I have heard the word 
elsewhere. 



4 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Italy upon their own side of the Alps, and after that for the 
Celtic territory conquered by Rome upon the other side of the 
Alps. 

The Germans appear to have called the Celts Wolah, a 
name derived from the Celtic tribe the Volcae, who were so 
long their neighbours, out of which appellation came the 
Anglo-Saxon Wealh and the modern English <c Welsh." 

There is one curious characteristic distinguishing, from its 
very earliest appearance, the Celtic language from its Indo- 
European sisters : this is the loss of the letter p both at the 
beginning of a word and when it is placed between two 
vowels. 1 This dropping of the letter p had already given to 
the Celtic language a special character of its own, at the time 
when breaking forth from their earliest home the Celts crossed 
the Rhine and proceeded, perhaps a thousand years before 
Christ, to establish themselves in the British Isles. The Celts 
who first colonised Ireland said, for instance, atir for pater ^ 
but they had not yet experienced, nor did they ever experience, 
that curious linguistic change which at a later time is assumed 
to have come over the Celts of the Continent and caused 
them to not only recover their faculty of pronouncing p y 
but to actually change into a p the Indo-European guttural 
q. Their descendants, the modern Irish, to this very day 
retain the primitive word-forms which had their origin a 
thousand years before Christ. So much so is this the case 
that the Welsh antiquary Lhuyd, writing in the last century, 
asserted, and with truth, that there were " scarce any words 
in the Irish besides what are borrowed from the Latin or 
some other language that begin with />, insomuch that in 
an ancient alphabetical vocabulary I have by me, that letter is 
omitted." 2 Even with the introduction ot Christianity and 

1 Thus the Greek vTrep, Latin s-uper, German iiber is ver in ancient Celtic 
{for in Old Irish, ar in the modern language), platanus becomes litano-s 
(Jrish leathan), napa becomes are, and so on. 

2 Lhuyd's " Comparative Etymology," title i. p. 21. Out of over 700 pages 
in O'Reilly's Irish dictionary only twelve are occupied with the letter^. 



WHO WERE THE CELTS? 5 

the knowledge of Latin the ancient Irish persisted in their 
repugnance to this letter, and made of the Latin Tasch-a 
(Easter) the word Casg^ and of the Latin purpur-a the Irish 
cur cur. 

But meantime the Continental Celts had either — as Jubain- 
ville seems to think — recovered their faculty for pronouncing 
p, or else — as Rhys believes — been overrun by other semi-Celts 
who, owing to some strong non-Aryan intermixture, found q 
repugnant to them, and changed it into p. This appears to have 
taken place prior to the year 500 B.C., for it was at about this 
time that they, having established themselves round the Seine 
and Loire and north of the Garonne, overran Spain, carrying 
everywhere with them this comparatively newly adopted p^ 
as we can see by their tribal and place-names. They appeared 
in Italy sometime about 400 B.C., 1 founded their colony in 
Galatia about 279 B.C., and afterwards sent another swarm into 
Great Britain, and to all these places they bore with them this 
obtrusive letter in place of the primitive ^, the Irish alone 
resisting it, for the Irish represented a first off-shoot from the 
cradle of the race, an off-shoot which had left it at a time 
when q represented />, and not p q. Hence it is that Welsh is 
so full of the p sound which the primitive Irish would never 
adopt, as a glance at some of the commonest words in both 
languages will show. 

English : Son tree head person worm feather everyone. 
Welsh : Map prenn pen nep ^ryv pluv paup. 

Irish : Mac crann cenn nech cruiv 2 cluv 2 each. 

So that even the Irish St. Ciaran becomes Piaran in Wales.3 

1 Probably for the second time. MM. Bertrand and Reinach seem to 
have proved that the Cisalpine peoples of North Italy who were under the 
dominion of the Etruscans were Celtic in manners and costume, and 
probably in language also. See " Les Celtes dans les vallees du Po et du 
Danube." Chapter on La Gaule Cisalpine. 

2 Rather " cruimh " and " clumh," the mh being pronounced v. 

3 In this matter of labialism Greek stands to some small extent with 
regard to Latin, as Welsh to Irish. Nor is Latin itself exempt from it ; 
compare the labialised Latin sept-em with the more primitive Irish secht. 



6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

The Celts invaded Italy about the year 400 B.C., and 
stormed Rome a few years later. They were at this time at 
the height of their power. From about the year 500 to 300 
B.C. they appear to have possessed a very high degree of 
political unity, to have been led by a single king, 1 and to have 
followed with signal success a wise and consistent external 
policy. The most important events in their history during 
this period were the three successful wars which they waged — 
first against the Carthaginians, out of whose hands they wrested 
the peninsula of Spain ; secondly in Italy against the Etruscans, 
which ended in their making themselves masters of the north 
of that country ; and thirdly against the Illyrians along the 
Danube. All of these wars were followed by large accessions 
of territory. One of the most striking features of their 
external policy during this period was their close alliance with 
the Greeks, whose commercial rivalry with the Phoenicians 
naturally brought them into relations with the Celtic enemies 
of Carthaginian power in Spain, relations from which they 
reaped much advantage, since the necessity of making head 
against the Celtic invaders of Spain must have seriously 
crippled the Carthaginian power, at the very time when, as 
ally of the Persians, she attacked the Greeks in Sicily, and lost 
the battle of Himera on the same day that the Persians lost 
that of Salamis. Greek writers of the fourth century speak of 
the Celts as practising justice, of having nearly the same 
manners and customs as the Greeks, and they notice their 
hospitality to Grecian strangers. 2 Their war with the Etruscans 
in North Italy completed the ruin of an hereditary enemy of 

1 See Livy's account of Ambicatus, who seems to have been a kind of 
Celtic Charlemagne, or more probably the equivalent of the Irish ard-righ. 
Livy probably exaggerates his importance. 

2 Cf. the remarkable verses quoted by d'Arbois de Jubainville of 
Scymnus of Chio, following Ephorus : 

" Xpuivrai St KeXrol toTq tOzcnv ' EXkrjviicolg 
ixovrsQ oiKuorara irpog rr\v 'HXXdda 
did rag t>7rodo%a£ tujv i7Ti%evov fLtvwv." 



WHO WERE THE CELTS? 7 

the Greeks, 1 and their war with the Illyrians no doubt largely 
strengthened the hands of Philip, the father of Alexander the 
Great, and enabled him to throw off the tribute which the 
Illyrians had imposed upon Macedonia. Nor did Alexander 
himself embark upon his expedition into Asia without having 
first assured himself of the friendship of the Celts. He 
received their ambassadors with cordiality, called them his 
friends, and received from them a promise of alliance. " If we 
fulfil not our engagement," said they, " may the sky falling upon 
us crush us, may the earth opening swallow us up, may the sea 
overflowing its borders drown us," and we may well believe 
that these were the very words used by the Celtic chieftains 
when we find in an Irish saga committed to writing about the 
seventh century 2 the Ulster heroes swearing to their king when 
he wished to leave his wing of the battle to repel the attacks 
of a rival, and saying, " heaven is over us and earth is under 
us and sea is round about us, and unless the firmament fall 
with its star-showers upon the face of the earth, or unless 
the earth be destroyed by earthquake, or unless the ridgy, 
blue-bordered sea come over the expanse ( ?) of life, we shall 
not give one inch of ground." 

While the ambassadors were drinking the young king asked 
them what was the thing they most feared, thinking, says the 
historian, that they would say himself, but their answer was 
quite different. " We fear no one," they said ; u there is 
only one thing that we fear, which is, that the heavens may 
fall upon us ; but the friendship of such a man as you we 
value more than everything," whereat the king, no doubt 
considerably astonished, remarked in a low voice to his 
courtiers what a vainglorious people these Celts were. 3 

1 By this war the newly-arrived bands drove out the Etruscan aristocracy 
and took its place, ruling over a population of what were really their Celtic 
kinsmen. 

2 The Tain Bo Chuailgne. 

3 [KeXroig] ('nreTrsfi^e, togovtov vttuttiov oti dka^oveg KeXroi elmv (Arrian, 
bk. i. chap. iv,). 



8 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

All through the life of Alexander the Celts and Mace- 
donians continued on good terms, and amongst the many envoys 
who came to Babylon to salute the youthful conqueror of 
Persia, appeared their representatives also. Some forty years 
later, however, this good understanding came to an end, and 
the Celts overthrew and slew in battle the Macedonian ruler 
Ptolemy Keraunos about 280 B.C. 

With the Romans, as with the Greeks, the relations of the 
Celts were, during the fifth and fourth century B.C., upon the 
whole friendly, and their hostility to the Etruscans must have 
tended naturally to render them and the Romans mutual allies. 
The battle of Allia, fought on the 18th of July, 390 B.C., and 
the storming of Rome three days later, were a punishment 
inflicted on the Romans by the Celts in their exasperation 
at seeing the Roman ambassadors, contrary to the right of 
nations, assisting their enemies the Etruscans under the walls 
of Clusium, but these events appear to have been followed by 
a long peace. 1 

It is only in the third century B.C. that the hitherto 
victorious and widely-colonising Celts appear to have laid 
aside their internal political unity and to have lost their 
hitherto victorious tactics. The Germans, over whom they 
had for centuries domineered and whom they had deprived of 
their independence, rise against them about 300 B.C., and 
drive out their former conquerors from between the Rhine and 

1 See Livy, book v. chap, xxxvi. : " Ibi, jam urgentibus Romanam urbem 
fatis, legati contra jus gentium arma capiunt, nee id clam esse potuit, quum 
ante signa Etruscorum tres nobilissimi fortissimi-que Romanas juventutis 
pugnarent. Tantum eminebat peregrina virtus. Quin etiam Q. Fabius 
erectus extra aciem equo, ducem Gallorum, ferociter in ipsa signa Etrus- 
corum incursantem, per latus transfixum hasta, occidit : spolia-que ejus 
legentem Galli agnovere, perque totem aciem Romanum legatum esse 
signum datum est. Omissa hide in Clusinos ira, receptui canunt minantes 
Romanis." It was the refusal of the Romans to give satisfaction for this 
outrage that first brought the Gauls upon them. 

Jubainville rejects as fabulous the self-contradicting accounts of Livy 
about Roman wars with the Celts during the next forty years after the 
storming of Rome. 



WHO WERE THE CELTS? g 

the Black Sea, from between the Elbe and the Maine. The 
Celts fall out with the Romans and are beaten at Sentinum in 
295 B.C. ; they ally themselves with their former enemies the 
Etruscans, and are again beaten in 283 B.C. and lose territory. 
They cease their alliance with the Greeks, and are guilty of 
the shameful folly of pillaging the temple of Delphi, an act 
of brigandage from which no good results could come, and 
from which no acquisition of territory resulted. They estab- 
lished a colony in Asia Minor in 278 B.C., successfully indeed, 
but absolutely cut off from the rest of the Celtic Empire, and 
such as in any federation of the Celtic tribes could only be a 
source of weakness. Again, about the same time, we see 
Celts driving out and supplanting Celts in the districts 
between the Rhine, the Seine, and the Marne. In 262 B.C. 
we find a body of three or four thousand Celts assisting their 
former foes the Carthaginians at the siege of Agrigentum, 
where they perish. Many of the Celts now took foreign 
service. It was at their instigation that the war of mer- 
cenaries broke out, which at one time brought Carthage to 
the very verge of destruction. 

Only two centuries and a half, as Jubainville remarks, had 
elapsed since the Celts had conquered Spain from the Phoeni- 
cians, and only a hundred and thirty years since they had 
taken Rome, but their victorious political unity had already 
begun to break up and crumble, and now Rome and Carthage 
commenced that deadly duel in which the victor was destined 
to impose his sway upon the ruins of the Celtic Empire as 
well as on that of Alexander — impose it, in fact, upon all the 
world then known to the Greeks, except only the extreme east. 

One of the circumstances which must have helped most 
materially to break up the Celtic Empire was the successful 
revolt of the Germans against their former masters. The 
relation of the German to the Celtic tribes is very obscure 
and puzzling. The ancient Greek historians of the sixth, 
fifth, and fourth centuries B.C., who tell us so much about the 



io LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Celts, know absolutely nothing of the Germans. As early as 
the year 500 B.C. Hecatasus of Miletum is able to name three 
peoples and two cities of India. But of the Germans, who 
were so much nearer to Marseilles than the nearest point of 
India is to the most eastern Greek colony, he says not a word. 
Ephorus, in the fourth century, knows of only one people to 
the extreme west, and they are the Celts, and their immediate 
neighbours are the Scythians. He knows of no intermediate 
state or nation. Where, then, were the Germans ? 

The explanation lies, according to Jubainville, in this, that 
even before this period the German had been conquered by 
the Celt and become subordinated to him. The Greek 
historians knew of no independent state bordering upon the 
Scythians except the Celtic Empire alone, because none such 
existed. In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., and perhaps as 
early as the seventh and sixth, the Germans had been subdued 
and had lost their independence. How and when this took 
place we can only conjecture, but we have philological reasons 
for believing that the two races had come into mutual contact 
at a very early date, probably as early as the eleventh century 
B.C. The early German name for the Rhine, for instance, 
Rino-Sy comes directly from the primitive Indo-European form 
Reino-s and not from the Celtic Renos, which shows that the 
Germans had reached that river at a time when the Celts who 
lived along it still called it Reinos, not Renos. The Celts 
afterwards changed the primitive ei into <?, and from their 
carrying the form rein z with them into Ireland, they had 
probably done this as early as the ninth or tenth century B.C., 
for, as we have shown, the Celts who inhabited Ireland have 
preserved the very oldest forms of the Celtic speech. 

On the other hand the Celts always called that Germanic 
tribe who accompanied the Cimbri by the name of Teutoni, 
thus showing that they first came in contact with them at a 

1 Rein = a primitive reni. It occurs in the Amra Colum-cilli, meaning 
"of the sea." 



WHO WERE THE CELTS? u 

date anterior to the phonetic law which introduced the so- 
called explosive consonants into German, and which caused the 
root Teutono (preserved intact by the Celts) to be turned into 
Theudono. From this it follows that the German and Celtic 
peoples were in touch with one another at a very remote period. 
The long subordination of the German to the Celt has left 
its marks deeply behind it, for his " language had remained un- 
cultivated during ages of slavery, had been reduced to the 
condition of a patois, and had forced the explosive consonants to 
submit to modifications of sound, the analogues of which appear 
in the Latin and Celtic languages during their decadence many 
centuries after those modifications of sound had deformed the 
language of the Germans." x 

" In fine the Germanic has created for itself a place apart, amongst 
the other Indo-European languages, though the excessive poverty 
of its conjugation, which only knows three tenses — the present tense 
and two past tenses — and which has lost in particular the imperfect 
or secondary present, the future, and the sigmatic aorist, and which 
has not had strength to regain those losses by the aid of new com- 
posite tenses with the exception of its dental preterite. The Celtic 
has preserved the three tenses which the Germanic has lost." a 

The Celtic language is in a manner allied to that of Italy, 
as is shown by its grammar, and out of all the circle of Indo- 
European languages the Latin comes nearest to it, and it and 
the Latin possess certain grammatical characteristics in common 
which are absent from the others. 3 To account for these we may 

1 D'Arbois de Jubainville's " Premiers Habitants de l'Europe," book iii. 
chap. iii. § 15. 

2 D'Arbois de Jubainville, ibid. 

3 " Some of the oldest and deepest morphological changes in Aryan 
speech are those which affect the Celto-Italic language. Such are the 
formation of a new passive, a new future, and a new perfect. Hence it is 
believed that the Celto-Italic languages may have separated from the rest 
while the other Aryan languages remained united." Taylor's " Origin of 
the Aryans," p. 257. Mr. Taylor is here alluding to the passive in r and the 
future in 60, but my friend, M. Georges Dottin, in his laborious and 
ample volume published last year, " Les desinences en R," has shown thai 
the r-passives, at least, are, in Italic and Celtic, independent creations. 



12 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

assume what may be called an Italo-Celtic period, prior, pro- 
bably, to the establishment of the Italian races in Italy, perhaps 
some twelve hundred years before Christ. 

On the other hand such mutual influence as Celtic and 
German have exercised upon each other is restricted merely to 
the vocabularies of the languages, for when these races came in 
contact with each other the two tongues had been already 
completely formed, and the grammar of the one could no longer 
be affected by that of the other. 

That there existed a kind of Celto-Germanic civilisation is 
easily proved by the number of words common to each lan- 
guage which are not found in the other Indo-European tongues, 
or which if they occur in them, are found bearing a different 
meaning. The two peoples, the dominant Celts and the 
subject Germans, obeyed the same chiefs and fought in the 
same armies, and naturally a certain number of words became 
common to both. It is noticeable, however, that none of the 
terms relating to either gods or priests or religious ceremonies 
bear in either language the slightest resemblance to one another. 
It was probably this difference of religion which preserved the 
conquered people from being assimilated, and which was ulti- 
mately the cause of the successful uprising of the servile tribes. 

The words which are common to the Germanic and the 
Celtic languages belong either to the art of government, 
political institutions, and law, or else to the art of war. These 
d'Arbois de Jubainville divides iato two classes — those which can 
be phonetically proved to be of Celtic origin, and those which, 
though almost certainly of Celtic origin, yet cannot be proved 
to be so to actual demonstration. Such important German 
words z as Reich and Amt are beyond all doubt Celtic loan- 



1 These loan-words " can hardly be later than the time of the Gaulish 
Empire founded by Ambicatus in the sixth century B.C. We gather from 
them that at this or some earlier period the culture and political organisa- 
tion of the Teutons was inferior to that of the Celts, and that the Teutons 
must have been subjected to Celtic rule. It would seem from the linguistic 



WHO WERE THE CELTS? 13 

words, as are probably such familiar vocables as Bann y frely 
Eidy Geisely leihen y Erbe^ Werth* all terms relating to law and 
government, imposed on or borrowed by the conquered Germans. 
From the Celts come also all such words concerning war and 
righting as are common to both nations, such as Held, Heer^ 
Siegj Beute. From the Celts too come names of domiciles, as 
Burg, Dorf Zaun, also of localities as Land, Flury Furty and the 
English woody and of domestic aids as Pferdy Belly and the Anglo- 
Saxon Vir (a torque). They too seem to have been the first 
in Northern Europe to have practised the art of medicine, for 
from the Celtic comes the Gothic lekeis — English leech." 2 
Certain other domestic words, such as Eiseriy Lothy and Leder y 
both races have in common. 

Despite the long subjection of the Germans they never lost 
their language, nor were they assimilated by the conquering 
race, a fate from which they were probably preserved, as we have 
said, by the complete difference of their sacred customs. There is 
hardly one name in all the Teutonic theogony which even faintly 
resembles a Celtic one.3 Their funeral rites were different, 

evidence that the Teutons got from their Celtic and Lithuanian neighbours 
their first knowledge of agriculture and metals, of many weapons and 
articles of food and clothing, as well as the most elementary social, 
religious, and political conceptions, the words for nation, people, king, and 
magistrate being, for instance, loan-words from Celtic or Lithuanian." — 
Taylor's " Origin of the Aryans," p. 234. 

1 Also the Gothic word magus (" a slave"), old Irish mug, or mogh, liugan 
(" to swear "), Irish luigh, dulgs (a debt), Irish dualgus, &c. 

2 Irish liaig. The Finns again borrowed this word from the Germans. 
It is the root of the name Lee, in most Irish families of that surname, 
indicating that their ancestors practised leech-craft. 

3 Rhys indeed compares the great Teutonic sky-god Woden with the 
Welsh Gwydion and Thor with the Celtic Taranucus or Thunder-God, 
and is of opinion that a good deal of Teutonic mythology was drawn from 
Celtic sources — a theory which, when we consider how much the 
Germans are indebted to the Celts for their culture-terms, may well be 
true with regard to later mythological conceptions and mythological saga. 
However, it is now generally acknowledged that while all the nations of 
Aryan origin possess a common inheritance of language, any inheritance of 
a common mythology, if such exist at all, must be reduced to very small 



i 4 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

the Germans burning, but the Celts burying their dead. Their 
systems of priesthood were absolutely different, that of the 
Celts being always an institution distinct from the kingship, 
while that of the Germans was for centuries vested in the head 
of the tribe or family. The priests of the Germans, even after 
the functions of priesthood had been severed from those of 
kingship, still exercised criminal jurisdiction, and even in the 
army a soldier could not be punished without their sanction. 
On the other hand the milder druids of the Celts appear 
to have never taken part in the judgment of delinquents 
against the State. Caesar makes no mention of their ever 
acting as judges in criminal cases. The culprit guilty or 
treason was not put to death by them but by the citizens — 
ab civttate. 1 

It was about the year 300 B.C. that the German tribes, so 
long incorporated with the Celts, at last rose against their 
masters and broke their yoke from off their necks. They 
succeeded in dislodging the Celts from the country which lies 
between the Rhine and the North Sea, between the Elbe and 
the basin of the Maine. It was in consequence of this blow 
that the Celtic Belgae were obliged to withdraw from the 
right bank of the Rhine to the left, and to occupy the country 
between it, the Seine, and the Marne, whilst other tribes 
settled themselves along the Rhine, and others again marched 
upon Asia Minor and founded their famous colony of Galatia 
in the extreme east of Europe, to whom, over three centuries 
later, St. Paul addressed his epistle, and whose descendants were 
found by St. Jerome in the fourth century still speaking 
Celtic. 2 

proportions. The complete difference between the names of the Indian, 
Hellenic, Italic, Teutonic, and Celtic gods is very striking. 

1 -" De Bello Gallico," book vii. chap. iv. 

2 Which he speaks of as a mark of folly, in just the same tone as an 
Anglicised Hibernian does of the Irish-speaking of the native Celts. His 
words are worth quoting : — " Antiquse stultitiae usque hodie manent vesti- 
gia. Unum est quod inferimus, et promissum in exordio reddimus, Galatas 



WHO WERE THE CELTS? 15 

It is no longer necessary to follow the fortunes of the Conti- 
nental Celts, to trace the history of their Galatian colony, to 
tell how they lost Spain, to recount the exploits of Marius and 
Sylla, the wars of Caesar, the heroic struggle of Vercingetorix, 
the division of Gaul by Octavius, the oppression of the Romans, 
and finally the inroads of the barbaric hordes of Visigoths, 
Burgundians, and Francs. It is sufficient to say that already 
in the third century of our era Gaul had lost every trace of its 
ancient Celtic organisation, and in its laws, habits, and civil 
administration had become purely Roman. The upper classes 
had, like the Irish upper classes of this and of the last century, 
thrown aside every vestige of Gaulish nationality, and piqued 
themselves upon the perfection with which they had Romanised 
themselves, as the Irish upper classes do upon the thoroughness 
with which they have become Anglicised. They threw aside 
their Gaulish names to adopt others more consonant to Latin ears, 
as the Irish are doing at this moment. Above all they prided 
themselves upon speaking only the language of their conquerors, 
and like so many of the Irish of to-day they derided their ancient 
language as lingua rustlca. It, however, banished from the 
mouths of the nobles and officials, lived on in the villages and 
rural parts of Gaul, as it has to this day done in Ireland, until 
the sixth century, when it finally gave ground and retired into 
the mountains and wastes of Armorica, where it coalesced 
with the Welsh which the large colony of British brought in 
with them when flying from the Saxon, and where it, in the 

excepto sermone Grseco quo omnis Oriens loquitur propriam linguam 
eamdem pene habere quam Treviros, nee referre si aliqua exinde corrum- 
perint, cum et Aphri Phcenicum linguam nonnulla ex parte mutaverint, et 
ipsa Latinitas et regionibus quotidie mutetur et tempore." His insinuation 
that they spoke their own language badly is also thoroughly Anglo- 
Hibernian, reminding one very much of Sir William Petty and others. Sec 
Jerome's preface to his " Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians," 
book vii. p. 429. Migne's edition. In another passage he is more compli- 
mentary, and calls them the Conquerors of the East and West — "Gallo- 
graecia [i.e., Galatia] in qua consederunt Orientis Occidentisque victores." 
See his " Epistle to Rusticus," book i. p. 935. Migne. 



i6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Cymraeg form of it, is still spoken by a couple of million 
people. 1 

1 Although Celtic has so long disappeared out of France with the 
exception of Armorica, it has left its traces deeply behind it upon the 
French language. This is also true even of linguistic sounds. "Tous 
les sons simples du francais se retrouvent dans le breton, et tous ceux 
du breton a l'exception d'un seul (le ch on le %) sont aussi dans notre 
langue : Yu et Ye tres-ouvert, Ye muet si rare partout ailleurs, le j pur 
inconnu a toute l'Europe, les deux sons mouilles du n et du I (comme 
dans les mots bataille et dignite) sont communs a la langue francaise 
et aux idiomes celtiques," says Demogeot. Even in French customary 
law there are " distinct and numerous traces " of old Gaulish habits and 
legislation, as Laferriere has pointed out in his history of the civil law 
of Rome and France. Nor is this to be in the least wondered at, when 
we remember that nineteen-twentieths of the modern French blood is 
computed to be that of the aboriginal races — Aquitanians, Celts, and Belgas ; 
whilst out of the remaining twentieth " the descendants of the Teutonic in- 
vaders — Franks, Burgundians, Goths, and Normans doubtless contributed 
a more numerous element to the population than the Romans, who, though 
fewer in number than any of the others, imposed their language on the 
whole country " {see Taylor's " Origin of the Aryans," p. 204). The bulk 
of the French nation is probably pre-Celtic. The modern Frenchman does 
not at all resemble the Gallic type as described by the Greek and Roman 
writers. 



CHAPTER II 

EARLIEST ALLUSIONS TO IRELAND FROM FOREIGN SOURCES 

Of all the tribes of the Celts, and indeed of all their neigh- 
bours in the west of Europe, the children of Milesius have been 
at once blessed and cursed beyond their fellows, for on the 
shores of their island alone did the Roman eagle check its 
victorious flight, and they alone of the nations of western 
Europe were neither moulded nor crushed into his own shape 
by the conqueror of Gaul and Britain. 

Undisturbed by the Romans, unconquered though shattered 
by the Norsemen, unsubdued though sore-stricken by the 
Normans, and still struggling with the Saxons, the Irish Gael 
alone has preserved a record of his own past, and preserved it 
in a literature of his own, for a length of time and with a con- 
tinuity which outside of Greece has no parallel in Europe. 

His own account of himself is that his ancestors, the Milesians, 
or children of Miledh, 1 came to Ireland from Spain about the 
year 1000 B.C., 2 and dispossessed the Tuatha De Danann who 

1 Milesius is the ordinary Latinised form of the Irish Miledh ; the real 
name of Milesius was Golamh, but he was surnamed Miledh Easpain, or 
the Champion of Spain. He himself never landed in Ireland. 

2 1016 according to O'Flaherty, in the eighth century B.C. according to 
Charles O'Conor of Belanagare, but as far back as 1700 B.C. according to 
the chronology of the " Four Masters." Nennius, the Briton who wrote in 

J* W 



iS LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

had come from the north of Europe, as these had previously 
dispossessed their kinsmen the Firbolg, who had arrived from 
Greece. 

Such a suggestion, however, despite the continuity and 
volume of Irish tradition which has always supported it, appears 
open to more than one rationalistic objection, the chiefest 
being that the voyage from Spain to Ireland would be one of 
some six hundred miles, hardly to be attempted by the early 
Irish barks composed of wickerwork covered with hides, fragile 
crafts which could hardly hope to live through the rough waters 
of the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic on a voyage from Spain, 
or through the Mediterranean and the Atlantic on a voyage 
from Greece. 

On the other hand, if we assume that our ancestors passed 
over from Gaul into Britain and thence into Ireland, we 
shall find it fit in with many other facts. To begin with, the 
voyage from Gaul to Britain is one of only some two and 
twenty miles, and from Britain to Ireland, at its narrowest 
point, is hardly twelve. The splendid physique, too, of the 
Irish, 1 which is now alas ! sadly degenerated through depression, 

the time of Charlemagne, gives two different accounts of the landing of 
the Irish, one evidently representing the British tradition, and the other 
that of the Irish themselves, of which he says sic mihi peritissimi Scoiorum 
nunciayerunt. Both these accounts make the Irish come from Spain, the 
first being that three sons- of a certain Miles of Spain landed in Ireland 
from Spain at the third attempt. According to what the Irish told him 
they reached Ireland from Spain 1,002 years after flying from Egypt. 

1 Even Giraldus Cambrensis, that most bigoted of anti-Irishmen, could 
nevertheless write thus of the natives in the twelfth century. " In Ireland 
man retains all his majesty. Nature alone has moulded the Irish, and as 
if to show what she can do has given them countenances of exquisite 
colour, and bodies of great beauty, symmetry, and strength." This testi- 
mony agrees with what Caesar says of the Celts of Gaul, whose large per- 
sons he compares with the short stature of the Romans, and admires their 
mirifica corpora. Strabo says of a Celtic tribe, the Coritavi, " to show how 
tall they are, I myself saw some of their young men at Rome, and they 
were taller by six inches than any one else in the city." The Belgic Gauls 
are uniformly described as tall, large-limbed, and fair, and Silius Italicus 
speaks of the huge limbs and golden locks of the Boii who gave their name 



ALLUSIONS FROM FOREIGN SOURCES 19 

poverty, famine, and the rooting out of the best blood/ but which 
has struck during the course of history such numerous foreign 
observers, seems certainly to connect the Irish by a family 
likeness with the Gauls, as these have been described to us by 
the Romans, and not with the Greeks or the swarthy, sun- 
burnt Iberians. Tacitus also, writing less than a century after 
Christ, tells us that the Irish in disposition, temper, and habits, 
differ but little from the Britons, and we find in Britain, North 
Gaul, and Germany, tribes of the same nomenclature as several 
of those Irish tribes whose names are recorded by Ptolemy 
about the year 150. 1 

On the one hand, then, we have the ancient universal Irish 
traditions, backed up by all the authority of the bards, the 
annalists and the shanachies, that the Milesians — who are the 
ancestors of most of the present Irish — came to Ireland direct 
from Spain ; and, on the other hand, we have these rationalistic 
grounds for believing that Ireland was more probably peopled 
from Gaul and Britain. The question cannot here be carried 
further, except to remark that in an age ignorant of geography 
the term Spain may have been used very loosely, and may rather 
have implied some land oversea, rather than any particular 
land. 2 

to Bavaria (Boio-varia) and to Bohemia (Boio-haims). They were probably 
the ruling race in Gaul, but the type is now very rarely seen there, the 
aristocratic Celts having been largely wiped out by war, as in Ireland, and 
having when shorn of their power become amalgamated with the Ligurians 
and other pre-Celtic peoples. 

1 As the Brigantes, Menapii, and Cauci. 

2 Buchanan the Scotchman (1506-81), having urged some of these 
objections against the Irish tradition, is thus fairly answered by Keating, 
writing in Irish, about half a century after Buchanan's death : "The first 
of these reasons," says Keating (to prove that the Irish came from Gaul), 
"he deduces from the. fact that Gaul was formerly so populous that the 
part of it called Gallia Lugdunensis would of itself furnish 300,000 fighting 
men, and that it was therefore likely that it had sent forth some such 
hordes to occupy Ireland, as were the tribes of the Gauls. My answer to 
that is that the author himself knew nothing of the specific time at which 
the Sons of Miledh arrived in Ireland, and that he was consequently 
perfectly ignorant as to whether France was populous or waste at that 



20 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

If Ireland were not — thanks to her native annalists, her 
autochtonous traditions and her bardic histories — to a great 
extent independent of classical and foreign authors, she would 
have fared badly indeed, so far as history goes, lying as she 
does in so remote a corner of the world, and having been 
untrodden by the foot of recording Greek or masterful 
Roman. There are, however, some few allusions to the 
island to be found, of which, perhaps, the earliest is the quota- 
tion in Avienus, who writing about the year 380 mentions the 
account of the voyage of Himilco, a Phoenician, 1 to Ireland 
about the year 510 B.C., who said in his account that Erin was 
called "Sacra" 2 by the ancients, that its people navigated the 
vast sea in hide-covered barks, and that its land was populous 
and fertile. In the Argonautics of the pseudo-Orpheus, which 
may have been written about 500 B.C., the Iernian3 — that is 

epoch. And even though the country were as populous as he states, when 
the Sons of Miledh came to Ireland, it does not follow that we must 
necessarily understand that it was the country whence they emigrated ; for 
why should it be supposed to be more populous at that time than Spain, 
the country they really did come from ? " 

1 Aristotle, too, mentions the discovery by the Phoenicians, of an 
island supposed to be Ireland, rich in forest and river and fruit, which, 
however, this account would make out to have been uninhabited : 
kv ry QaXaaay ry t£,io 'HpafcXeiwy <rri]\u>v <pa<jiv vtto Kapxrjdoviujv vfjaov 
tvpEOrjvat, tprjfirjv, exovcrav vXtjv re 7ravroda7rrj kcli TroTa/xovg 7r\(jJTovg, icai 
toTq Xonrolg Kapiroig Oav/jLacrryv, airkxovaav Se ttXeiovojv rj/nepwv, etc. 
Ireland was splendidly wooded until after the Cromwellian wars, and not 
unfrequently we meet allusions in the 1 old literature to the first clearances 
in different districts, associated with the names of those who cleared them. 

2 Sacra is apparently a translation of 'Iepa = Eiriu, old form of Eire 
now called Erin, which last is really an oblique case. 

3 vrjcroHTiv 'lepviaiv, and vrjaov 'lepvida. The names by which Ireland 
and its inhabitants were known to the writers of antiquity are very various, 
as 'lovepvia, 'lovkpvoi, Juverna, Juberna, Iverna, Hibernia, Hibernici, Hiber- 
nienses, Jouvernia, Ovepvia, 'lovpvla, and even Vernia and Bepvia. St. 
Patrick in his confessions calls the land Hyberione and speaks of Hibernas 
Gentes and " filii Scotorum." There can be little doubt that Aristotle's 
'lkpvr), the vrjcTov 'lepvida of the Argonautics and Diodorus' "Ipig represent 
the same country. Here are Keating's remarks on it: "An t-aonmhadh 
hainm deag Juvernia do reir Ptolomeus, no Juverna do reir Sholinuis, no 
Ierna do reir Claudianus, no Vernia do reir Eustatius , measaim nach 



ALLUSIONS FROM FOREIGN SOURCES 21 

apparently the Irish — Isle is mentioned. Aristotle / knew 
about it too. Ierne, he says, is a very large island beyond the 
Celts. Strabo, writing soon after the birth of Christ, describes 
its position and shape, also calling it Ierne, but according to 
his account — which he acknowledges, however, that he does 
not make on good authority — it is barely habitable and its 
people are the most utter savages and cannibals. 1 Hibernia, 
says Julius Caesar, is esteemed half the size of Britain and is as 
distant from it as Gaul is. Diodorus, some fifty years before 
Christ, calls it Iris, and says it was occupied by Britons. 2 
Pomponius Mela, in the first century of our era, calls Ireland 
Iverna, and says that " so great was the luxuriance of grass 
there as to cause the cattle to burst " ! Tacitus a little later, 
about the year 82, telling us how Agricola crossed the Clyde 
and posted troops in that part of the country which looked 
toward Ireland, says that Hibernia "in soil and climate, in the 
disposition, temper, and habits of its people, differed but little 
from Britain, and that its approaches and harbours were better 
known through traffic and merchants." 3 

bhfuil do cheill san deifir ata idir na h-ughdaraibh sin do leith an fhocail-se 
Hibernia, acht nar thuigeadar cread 6 ttainig an focal fein 7 da reir sin go 
ttug gach aon fo leith amus uaidh fein air, agus is de sin thainig an 
mhalairt ud ar an bhfocal." (See Haliday's " Keating," p. 119.) 

1 'lepvt] irepl i)Q ovdsv 'ixofxtv Xkyuv va(j)££, except that the inhabitants 
are dv9pu>7ro<pdyoi and 7roXv(pdyoi ! Tovq re irar'tpaQ TsXevryaavraQ /carecr- 
6uiv iv icaX^t tlOs^evol. He adds, however, ravra d'ovno Xkyofiev wq ovk 
txovreg aZioTrivTovQ [idprvpaQ (Book IV., ch. v.). In another passage he 
shows how utterly misinformed he must have been by saying that 'Upvt] 
was dOXiiog Sk Sid ^vx°Q OLKOvfiivrjv uxrre rd k-nrkicuva vojj.i'Cziv doi/c7jra 
(II. 5). Elsewhere he calls the inhabitants dypKorspoi twv Bperavibi/. 

2 rutv BperravoJv, tovq KaroiKovvraq rr\v bvo\iaZ 1 o\x'i.vr\v"\piv. 

3 " Solum ccelumque et ingenia cultusque hominum haud multum a 
Britannia differunt ; in melius aditus portusque per commercia et nego- 
ciatores cogniti." This employment of in before melius is curious, and the 
passage, which Diefenbach in his Celtica malignly calls the " Lieblings- 
stelle der irischen Schriftsteller," is not universally accepted as meaning 
that the harbours of Ireland were better known than those of Great 
Britain ; but when we consider the antiquarian evidence for ancient Irish 
civilisation, and that in artistic treatment, and fineness of manufacture 



22 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Ptolemy, writing about the year 150, unconsciously bears 
out to some extent what Tacitus had said of Ireland's 
harbours being better known than those of Britain, for he has 
left behind him a more accurate account of Ireland than of 
Britain, giving in all over fifty Irish names, about nine of 
which have been identified, and mentioning the names of two 
coast towns, seven inland towns, and seventeen tribes, some of 
which, as we have said, nearly resemble the names of tribes in 
Britain and North Gaul. Solinus, about a.d. 238, is the first 
to tell us that Hibernia has no snakes — observe this curious 
pre-Patrician evidence which robs our national saint of one of 
his laurels — saying, like Pomponius Mela, that it has luxurious 
pastures, and adding the curious intelligence that, " warlike 
beyond the rest of her sex, the Hibernian mother places the 
first morsel of food in her child's mouth with the point of the 
sword." Eumenius mentions the Hibernians about the year 
306 in his panegyric on Constantine, saying that until now 
the Britons had been accustomed to fight only Pictish and 
Hibernian enemies. In 378 Ammianus Marcellinus mentions 
the Irish under the name of Scots, saying that the Scotti and 
Attacotti 1 commit dreadful depredations in Britain, and 

Irish bronzes are fully equal to those of Great Britain, and her gold objects 
infinitely more numerous and every way superior, there seems no reason 
to doubt that the text of Tacitus must be translated as above, and not sub- 
jected to such forced interpretations as that the harbours and approaches 
of Ireland were better known than the land itself I 

1 " Picti Saxonesque et Scotti et Attacotti Britannos aerumnis vexavere 
continuis." These Attacotti appear to have been an Irish tribe. There is a 
great deal of controversy as to who they were. St. Jerome twice mentions 
them in connection with the Scots (i.e., the Irish) : Scotorum et Atticotorum 
ritu, they have their wives and children in common, as Plato recommends 
in his Republic ! (Migne's edition, Book I., p. 735.) He says that he himself 
saw some of them when he was young, "Ipse adolescens in Gallia viderim 
Attacotlos, Scotorum (one would expect Attacotorum) natio uxores proprias 
11011 habet. The name strongly resembles Cassar's Aduatuci and Diodorus's 
ArovariKol and certainly appears to be same as the Gaelic Aitheach-Tuatha, 
so well known in Irish history, a name which O' Curry translates by 
" rent-paying tribes," probably of non-Milesian origin. These rose in the 
first century against their Milesian masters and massacred them. If as 



ALLUSIONS FROM FOREIGN SOURCES 23 

Claudian a few years later speaks rather hyperbolically of the 
Irish invasion of Britain ; "the Scot (/.<?., the Irishman)," he 
says, " moved all Ierne against us, and the Ocean foamed under 
his hostile oars — a Roman legion curbs the fierce Scot, through 
Stilicho's care I feared not the darts of the Scots — Icy Erin 
wails over the heaps of her Scots." 1 The Irish expeditions 
against both Gaul and Britain became more frequent towards 
the end of the fourth century, and at last the unfortunate 
Britons, driven to despair, and having in vain appealed to the 
now disorganised Romans to aid them, sooner than stand the 
fury of the Irish and Picts threw themselves into the arms of 
the Saxons. 2 

It is towards the middle or close of the fourth century that 
we come into much closer historical contact with the Irish, 
and indeed we know with some certainty a good deal about 
their internal history, manners, laws, language, and institutions 
from that time to the present. Of course if we can trust 
Irish sources we know a great deal about them for even seven 
or eight hundred years before this. The early Irish annalist, 
Tighearnach,3 who died in 1088, and who had of course the 

Thierry thinks the east and centre of Gaul were Gaelic speaking, they too 
may have had their Aitheach-Tuatha, which may have been a general name 
for certain non-Celtic tribes reduced by the Celts. According to the 
Itinerarium of Ricardus Corinensis quoted by Diefenbach, Book III., there 
were Attacotti along the banks of the Clyde : " Clottce ripas accokbant Aita- 
cotti, gens toti aliquando Britannia: formidanda." 

1 " Scotorum cumulos flevit glacialis Ierne" ("glacialis," of course, only 
when looked at from a southern point of view. Strabo, as we have seen, 
said the island was scarcely habitable from cold). 

" — Totam quum Scotus Iernen 
Movit et infesto spumavit remige Tethys. " 

It is probably mere hyperbole of Claudian to say that the Roman chased 

the Irish out to sea, 

" — nee falso nomine Pictos 
Edomuit, Scotumque vago mucrone secutus 
Fregit Hyperboreas velis audacibus undas." 

2 These appear in Britain in the middle of the fifth century, in 440. 
according to the Saxon Chronicle, which is probably substantially correct. 

3 Pronounced " Teear-nach." 



24 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

records of the earliest Irish writers — so far as they had escaped 
extinction by the Danes — before his eyes when he wrote, and 
who quotes frequently and judiciously from Josephus, St. Jerome, 
Bede, and other authors, was of opinion, after weighing evidence 
and comparing Irish with foreign writers, that the monumenta 
Scotorum, or records of the Irish prior to Cimbaeth (/.*., about 
300 B.C.) were uncertain. This means that from that time 
forwards he at least considered that the substance of Irish 
history as handed down to us might, to say the least of it, be 
more or less relied upon. Cimbaeth was the founder of 
Emania, the capital of Ulster, the home of the Red Branch 
knights, which flourished for 600 years and which figures so 
conspicuously in the saga-cycle of Cuchulain. 

What then — for we pass over for the present the colonies of 
Partholan, the Tuatha De Danann, and the Nemedians, 
leaving them to be dealt with among the myths — have our 
native bards and annalists to say of these six or seven centuries ? 
As several of the best and greatest of Irish sagas deal with 
events within this period, we can — if bardic accounts, probably 
first committed to writing about the sixth or seventh century 
may at all be trusted — to some extent recall its leading features, 
or reconstruct them. 



CHAPTER III 

EARLY HISTORY DRAWN FROM NATIVE SOURCES 

The allusions to Ireland and the Irish from the third century 
before to the fourth century after Christ, are, as we have seen, 
both few and scanty, and throw little or no light upon the 
internal affairs or history of the island ; for these we must go 
to native sources. 

At the period when Emania was founded, that is, at the 
period when according to the learned native annalist Tighear- 
nach, the records of the early Irish cease to be " uncertain," 
the throne of Ireland was occupied by a High-king called 
Ugony z the Great, and a certain body of saga, much of which 
is now lost, collected itself around his personality, and attached 
itself to his two sons, Cobhthach Caol-mBreagh and Leary 2 
Lore, and around Leary Lore's grandson, Lowry 3 the mariner. 
It was this Ugony who attempted to substitute a new terri- 
torial division of Ireland in place of the five provinces into 
which it had been divided by the early Milesians. He exacted 
an oath by all the elements — the usual Pagan oath — from the 
men of Ireland that they would never oppose his children or 
his race, and then he divided the island into twenty-five parts, 

1 In Irish, Iugoine. - In Irish, Laoghaire. 

3 In Irish, Labhraidh Loingseach. 

25 



26 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

giving one to each of his children. He succeeded in this 
manner in destroying the ancient division of Ireland into 
provinces and in perpetuating his own, for several generations, 
when Eochaidh Feidhleach x once more reverted to the ancient 
system of the five provinces — Ulster, Connacht, Leinster, and 
the two Munsters. This Eochaidh Feidhleach came to the 
throne about 140 years before Christ, according to the "Four 
Masters," 2 and it was his daughter who is the celebrated heroine 
Meve,3 queen of Connacht, who reigned at Rathcroghan in 
Connacht, and who undertook the great Tain Bo or Cattle 
Raid into Ulster, that has been celebrated for nigh on 2,000 
years in poem and annal among the children of the Gael ; and 
her name introduces us to Conor 4 mac Nessa, king of Ulster, 
to the palace of Emania, to the Red Branch knights, to the 
tragedy of Deirdre and all the vivid associations of the Cuchu- 
lain cycle. 

It was thirty-three years before Christ, according to the 
" Four Masters," that Conaire the Great, High-king of all 
Ireland, was slain, and he is the central figure of the famous 
and very ancient saga of the Bruidhean Da Derga.S 

And now we come to the birth of Christ, which is thus 
recorded by the " Four Masters" : " The first year of the age of 
Christ and the eighth of the reign of Crimhthan Niadhnair." 6 
Crimhthan was no doubt one of the marauding Scots who 
plundered Britain, for it is recorded of him that " it was this 
Crimhthan who went on the famous expedition beyond the sea 
from which he brought home several extraordinary and costly 

1 Pronounced " Yo-hy Faylach." 

2 Less than 100 years before, according to Keating. 

3 In Irish, Meadhbh, pronounced Meve or Maev. In Connacht it is 
often strangely pronounced " Mow," rhyming with " cow." This name 
dropped out of use about 150 years ago, being Anglicised into Maud. 

4 In Irish, Concobar, or Conchubhair, a name of which the English 
have made Conor, almost in accordance with the pronunciation. 

s Pronounced " Breean Da Darga," i.e., the Mansion Da Derga. 
6 Pronounced " Crivhan " or " Criffan Neeanar." Keating assigns the birth 
of Christ to the twelfth year of his reign. 






0HE8TJSUT MILL, MASS, 
EARLY HISTORY FROM NATIVE SOURCES 27 

treasures, among which were a gilt chariot and a golden chess- 
board, inlaid with three hundred transparent gems, a tunic of 
various colours and embroidered with gold, a shield embossed 
with pure silver," and many other valuables. Curiously 
enough O'Clery's Book of Invasions contains a poem of 
seventy-two lines ascribed to this king himself, in which he 
describes these articles. He was fabled to have been accom- 
panied on this expedition by his " bain-leannan " or fairy 
sweetheart, one of an interesting race of beings of whom 
frequent mention is made in Irish legend and saga. 

The next event of consequence after the birth of Christ 
is the celebrated revolt led by Cairbre Cinn-cait, of the 
Athach-Tuatha, 1 or unfree clans of Ireland, in other words the 
serfs or plebeians, against the free clans or nobility, whom they 
all but exterminated, three unborn children of noble line alone 
escaping. 2 

The people of Ireland were plagued — as though by heaven 
— with bad seasons and lack of fruit during the usurper 
Cairbre's reign. As the " Four Masters " graphicallv put it, 
"evil was the state of Ireland during his reign, fruitless her 
corn, for there used to be but one grain on the stalk ; Ashless 



1 The Athach (otherwise Aitheach) Tuatha Dr. O' Conor translates 
"giant-race," but it has probably no connection with the word [fjathach, 
"a giant." O'Curry and most authorities translate it "plebeian," or "rent- 
paying," and Keating expressly equates it with daor-chlanna, or " unfree 
clans." These were probably largely if not entirely composed of Firbolgs 
and other pre-Milesians or pre-Celtic tribes. See p. 22, note 1. 

2 These were Fearadach, from whom sprang all the race of Conn of 
the Hundred Battles, i.e., most of the royal houses in Ulster and Connacht, 
Tibride Tireach, from whom the Dal Araide, the true Ulster princes, 
Magennises, etc., spring, and Corb Olum, from whom the kings of the 
Eoghanachts, that is, the royal families of Minister, come. O'Mahony, 
however, points out that this massacre could not have been anything like 
as universal as is here stated, for the ancestors of the Leinster royal 
families, of the Dal Fiatach of Ulster, the race of Conaire, that of the 
Ernaans of Minister, and several tribes throughout Ireland of the races of 
the Irians, Conall Gear nach, and Feargus Mac Roigh, were not involved 
in it. 



28 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

her rivers ; millcless her cattle ; unplenty her fruit, for there 
used to be but one acorn on the oak." The belief that bad 
seasons were sent as a punishment of bad rulers was a very 
ancient and universal one in Ireland, and continued until very 
lately. The ode which the ollav or head-bard is said to have 
chanted in the ears of each newly-inaugurated prince, took 
care to recall it to his mind, and may be thus translated : — 

" Seven witnesses there be 

Of the broken faith of kings. 
First — to trample on the free, 

Next — to sully sacred things, 
Next — to strain the law divine, 

(This defeat in battle brings). 
Famine, slaughter, milkless kine, 

And disease on flying wings. 
These the seven-fold vivid lights 

That light the perjury of kings ! " * 

According to the Book of Conquests the people of 
Ireland, plagued by famine and bad seasons, brought in, on the 
death of Cairbre, the old reigning families again, making 
Fearadach king, and the " Athach-Tuatha swore by the heaven 
and earth, sun, moon, and all the elements, that they would 
be obedient to them and their descendants, as long as the sea 

1 " Mos erat ut omni, qui in dignitatem elevatus fuerit, philosopho-poeta 
Oden caneret," etc. (See p. 10 of the " Institutio Principis '' in the Trans- 
actions of the Gaelic Society, 1808, for O'Flanagan's Latin.) He does not 
give the original, nor have I ever met it. Consonant with this is a verse 
from Tadhg Mac Daire's noble ode to Donogh O'Brien — 

" Teirce, daoirse, dith ana, 
Plagha, cogtha, conghala, 
Diombuaidh catha, gairbh-shion, goid, 
Tre ain-bhfir flatha fasoid." 

I.e., " Dearth, servitude, want of provisions, plagues, wars, conflicts, defeat 
in battle, rough weather, rapine, through the falsity of a prince they 
arise." I find a curious extension of this idea in a passage in the " Annals 
of Loch Ce" under the year 1568, which is recorded as "a cold stormy 
year of scarcity, and this is little wonder, for it was in it Mac Diarmada 
(Dermot) died " ! 



EARLY HISTORY FROM NATIVE SOURCES 29 

should surround Ireland." The land recovered its tranquillity 
with the reign of Fearadach. " Good was Ireland during his 
time. The seasons were right tranquil ; the earth brought 
forth its fruit. Fishful its river mouths ; milkful the kine ; 
heavy-headed the woods." 

There was a second uprising of the Athach-Tuatha later 
on, 1 when they massacred their masters on Moy Bolg. The 
lawful heir to the throne was yet unborn at the time of this 
massacre and so escaped. This was the celebrated Tuathal 
[Too-a-hal, now Toole], who ultimately succeeded to the throne 
and became one of the most famous of all the pre-Patrician 
kings. It was he who first established or cut out the province 
of Meath. The name Meath had always existed as the ap- 
pellation of a small district near which the provinces of Ulster, 
Connacht, Leinster, and the two Munsters joined. Tuathal cut 
off from each of the four provinces the angles adjoining it, and 
out of these he constituted a new province 2 to be thenceforth the 

1 There is a rather suspicious parallelism between these two risings, 
which would make it appear as though part at least of the story had been 
reduplicated. First Cairbre Cinri-Cait, and the Athach-Tuatha, in the year 
10, slay the nobles of Ireland, but Fearadach escapes in his mother's womb. 
His mother was daughter of the King of Alba. After five years of famine 
Cairbre dies and Fearadach comes back and reigns. Again, in the year 
56, Fiachaidh, the legitimate king, is slain by the provincial kings at the 
instigation of the Athach-Tuatha, in the slaughter of Moy Bolg. His 
unborn son also escapes in the womb of his mother. This mother is also 
daughter of the King of Alba. Elim the usurper reigns, but God again 
takes vengeance, and during the time that Elim was in the sovereignty 
Ireland was " without corn, without milk, without fruit, without fish," etc. 
Again, on the death of Elim the legitimate son conies to the throne, and 
the seasons right themselves. Keating's account agrees with this except 
that he misplaces Cairbre's reign. There probably were two uprisings of 
the servile tribes against their Celtic masters, but some of the events 
connected with the one may have been reduplicated by the annalists. 
O'Donovan, in his fine edition of the "Four Masters," does not notice this 
parallelism. 

2 This would appear to have left six provinces in Ireland, but the dis- 
tinction between the two Munsters became obsolete in time, though about 
a century and a half later we find Cormac levying war on Munster and 
demanding a double tribute from it as it was a double province ! So late 



30 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

special estate, demesne, and inheritance of the High-Icings of 
Ireland. He built, or rebuilt, four palaces in the four quarters 
of the district he had thus annexed, all of them celebrated in 
after times — of which more later on. It was he also who, 
under evil auspices and in an evil hour, extorted from Leinster 
the first Borumha, 1 or Boru tribute, — nomen infaustum — a 
step which contributed so powerfully to mould upon lines 
of division and misery the history of our unhappy country 
from that day until the present, by estranging the province or 
Leinster, throwing it into the arms of foreigners, and causing 
it to put itself into opposition to the rest of Ireland. This 
unhappy tribute, of which we shall hear more later on, was 
imposed during the reigns of forty kings. 

Thirteen years after the death of Tuathal, Cathaoir [Cau- 
heer], celebrated for his Will or Testament, 2 reigned ; he was 
of pure Leinster blood, and the men of that province have 
always felicitated themselves upon having given at least this 

as the fourteenth century O'Dugan, in his poem on the kings of the line of 
Eber, refers to the two provinces of Munster. 

" Da thir is aille i n-Eirinn 
Da chuige an Chlair leibhinn, 
Tir fhoid-sheang aird-mhin na ngleann 
Coigeadh i d'Aird-righ Eireann" — 

i.e., the two most beauteous lands in Ireland, the two provinces of the 
delightful plain, the slender-sodded, high-smooth land of the valleys, a 
province is she for the High-king of Ireland. 

1 There is a town in Clare called Borumha [gen. "Boirbhe," according to 
O'Brien] from which it is said Brian Boru derived his name. But the usual 
belief is that he derived it from having imposed the boroimhe tribute again 
on Leinster. Borumha is pronounced Bo-roo-a, hence the popular Boru[a] 
Boroimhe is pronounced Bo-ruva. It is also said that the town of Borumha 
in Clare got its name from having the Boroimhe tribute driven into it. 
The spelling Boroimhe [= Boriiva] instead of Borumha [Boru-a] has been 
a great crux to English speakers, and I noticed the following skit, in a little 
Trinity College paper, the other day — 

" Says the warrior Brian Boroimhe, 
I'm blest if I know what to doimhe — 

My favourite duck 

In the chimney is stuck, 
And the smoke will not go up the floimhe ! " 

2 See "The Book of Rights," p. 172. 



EARLY HISTORY FROM NATIVE SOURCES 31 

one great king to Ireland. It is from him that the great 
Leinster families — the O'Tooles, O'Byrnes, Mac Morroughs 
or Murphys, O'Conor Falys, O'Gormans, and others — descend. 
He was slain, a.d. 123, by Conn of the Hundred Battles. 1 

There are few kings during the three hundred years pre- 
ceding and following the birth of Christ more famous than this 
Conn, and there is a very large body of saga collected round 
him and his rival Eoghan [Owen], the king of Munster who 
succeeded in wresting half the sovereignty from him. As the 
result of their conflicts that part of Ireland which lies north 
of the Escir Riada, 2 or, roughly speaking, that lies north of a 
line drawn from Dublin to Galway, has from that day to this 
been known as Conn's Half, and that south of the same line as 
Owen's Half. Owen was at last slain by him of the hundred 
battles at the fight of Moy Leana. 

Owen, as we have seen, was never King of Ireland, but he 
left behind him a famous son, Oilioll 3 Olum, who was married 
to Sadhbh,4 the daughter of his rival and vanquisher, Conn of 
the Hundred Battles, and it is to this stem that nearly all the 
ruling families of Munster trace themselves. From his eldest 

1 It was O'Beirne Crowe, I think, who first translated this name by " Conn 
the Hundred-Fighter," "egal-a-cent-guerriers," as Jubainville has it, a trans- 
lation which, since him, every one seems to have adopted. This translation 
makes the Irish adjective ceadcathach exactly equivalent to the Greek 
tKaTovTa/iaxog, but it is certainly not correct, for Keating says distinctly 
that Conn was called ceadcathach, or of the hundred battles, "from the 
hundreds of battles which he fought against the pentarchs or provincial 
kings of Ireland," quoting a verse from a bard by way of illustration 

2 Pronounced " Eskkir Reeada." 

3 Pronounced " Ell-yull." 

4 Pronounced "Sive," but as Mead hbh is curiously pronounced like ''Mow " 
in Connacht, so is Sadhbh pronounced " sow," rhyming to " cow." I he. ml 
a Galway woman in America, the mother of Miss Conway, of the Boston 
Pilot quote these lines, which she said she had often heard in her youth — 

"Sow, Mow [i.e., Sive and Move], Sorcha, Sighle, 
Anmneacha cat agus madah na tire." 

I.e., " Sive, Meve, Sorcha and Sheela are the names of all the cats and 
dogs in the country," and hence by implication unsuited for human beings. 
This was part of the process of Anglicisalion. 



32 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

son, Owen Mor, come the Mac Carthys, O'Sullivans, O'Keefes, 
O'Callaghans, etc. ; from his second son come the Mac Namaras 
and Clancys ; and from his third son, Cian, 1 come the so-called 
tribes of the Cianachts, the O'Carrolls, O'Meaghers, O'Haras, 
O'Garas, Caseys, the southern O'Conors, and others. There is a 
considerable body of romance gathered around this Oilioll and his 
sons and wife, chiefly connected with the kingship of Munster. 

Conn's son, Art the Lonely — so-called because he survived 
after the slaughter of his brothers — was slain by Mac Con, 
Sive's son by her first husband, and the slayer ruled in his place, 
being the third king of the line of the Ithians, of whom we 
shall read later on, who came to the throne. 

He, however, was himself killed at the instigation of Cormac, 
son of Art, or Cormac mac Art, as he is usually designated. 
This Cormac is a central figure of the large cycle of stories 
connected with Finn and the Fenians. He was at last slain 
in the battle of Moy Mochruime. His advice to a prince, 
addressed to his son Cairbre of the Liffey, will be noticed later 
on, and, so far as it may be genuine, bears witness to his 
reputed wisdom, " as do the many other praiseworthy institutes 
named from him that are still to be found among the books 
of the Brehon Laws." 2 This Cormac it was who built the 
first mill in Ireland, and who made a banqueting-place of the 
great hall of Mi-Cuarta,3 at Tara, which was one hundred 
yards long, forty-five feet high, one hundred feet broad, and 
which was entered by fourteen doors. The site is still to be 
seen, but no vestige of the building, which, like all early Irish 
structures, was of wood. 

Cairbre of the Liffey succeeded his father Cormac, and it 
was he who fought the battle of Gabhra (Gowra) with the 
Fenians, in which he himself was slain, but in which he broke, 
and for ever, the power of that unruly body of warriors. 

About the year 331 the great Ulster city and palace of 

1 Pronounced " Keean." 2 Keating. 

3 I.e., the hall of "the circulation of mead." 



EARL Y HISTOR V FROM NA TIVE SOURCES 33 

Emania, which had been the home of Conor and the Red 
Branch knights, and the capital of Ulster for six hundred 
years, was taken and burnt to the ground by the Three Collas, 
who thus become the ancestors of a number of the tribes 
of modern Ulster. From one of them descend the 
Mac Mahons, the ruling family of Monaghan ; the Maguires, 
barons of Fermanagh ; and the O'Hanlons, chiefs of Orior ; 
while another was the ancestor of the Mac Donalds of Antrim 
and the Isles, of the Mac Dugalds, and the Mac Rories. The old 
nobility of Ulster, whose capital had been Emania, were thrust 
aside into the north-east corner of Ulster, whence most of 
them were expelled by the planters of James I. 

We now come to Eochaidh [Yohee] Muigh-mheadhoin 
[Mwee-va-on] who was father of the celebrated Niall of the 
Nine Hostages. From one of his sons, Brian, come the Ui 
[Ee] Briain, that is, the collection of families composed of 
the seed of Brian — the O'Conors, kings of Connacht ; the 
Mac Dermots, princes of Moylurg, afterwards of Coolavin ; 
the O'Rorkes, princes of Breffny ; the O'Reillys, O'Flaherties, 
and Mac Donaghs. From another son of his, Fiachrach, come 
the Ui Fiachrach, who were for ages the rivals of the Ui 
Briain in contesting the sovereignty of Connacht — the 
O'Shaughnesies were one of the principal families representing 
this sept. 1 

Eochaidh Muiaii-mheadhoin was succeeded in ?66 2 by 
Crimhthan [Crivhan], who was one of those militant Scots at 
whose hands the unhappy Britons suffered so sorely. He 
"gained victories," say the annals, "and extended his sway 
over Alba, Britain, and Gaul," which probably means that he 
raided all three, and possibly made settlements in South-west 
Britain. He was poisoned by his sister in the hope that the 
sovereignty would fall to her favourite son Brian. In this, 
however, she was disappointed, and it is a noticeable fact in 

1 Also the O'Dowdas of Mayo, the O'Heynes, O'Clearys, and Kilkellies. 

2 In 360 according to Keating. 

C 



34 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Irish history that none of the Ui Briain, or great Connacht 
families, ever sat upon the throne of Ireland, with the excep- 
tion of Turlough O'Conor, third last king of Ireland, ancestor 
of the present O'Conor Don, and Roderick O'Conor, the 
last of all the Hio;h-kino-s of the island. 

Brian beins- set aside, Niall of the Nine Hostages ascended 
the throne in 379. It was he who first assisted the Dal Riada 
clans to gain supremacy over the Picts of Scotland. These 
Dal Riada were descended from a grandson, on the mother's 
side, of Conn of the Hundred Battles. There were two septs 
of these Dal Riada, one settled in Ulster and the other in Alba 
[Scotland], It was from the conquests 1 achieved by the Scots 
[i.e. Milesians] of Ireland that Alba was called Lesser Scotia. 
In course of ages the inconvenient distinction of the countries 
into Lesser and Greater Scotia died away, but the name 
Scotia, or Scotland, without any qualifying adjective, clung to 
the lesser country to the frightful confusion of historians, 
while the greater remained known to foreigners as Erin, or 
Hibernia. 2 This Niall was surnamed " of the Nine Hostages," 
from his having extorted hostages from nine minor kings. He 
mercilessly plundered Britain and Gaul. The Picts and Irish 

1 One branch of the Dal Riada settled in Scotland in the third century, 
and their kinsfolk from Ulster kept constantly crossing over and assisting 
them in their struggles with the Picts. They were recruited also by some 
other minor emigrations of Irish Picts and Milesians. Their complete 
supremacy over the Picts was not obtained till the beginning of the sixth 
century. It was about the year 502 that Fergus the Great, leading a fresh 
and powerful army of the Dal Riada into Scotland, first assumed for himself 
Royal authority which his descendants retained for 783 years, down to the 
reign of Malcolm IV., slain in 1285. It was not, however, till about the 
year 844 that the Picts, who were almost certainly a non-Aryan race, were 
finally subdued by King Keneth Mac Alpin, who completely Gaelicised them. 

2 The name of Scotia was used for Ireland as late as the fifteenth cen- 
tury upon the Continent, in one or two instances at least, and " kommt 
noch am 15 Jahrhundert in einer Unkunde des Kaisers Sigismund vor, und 
der Name Schottenkloster setzt das Andenken an diese urspriingliche 
Bezeichnung Irlands noch in mehreren Stadten Deutschlands (Regens- 
burg, Wurtzburg, Coin, &c), Belgien, Frankreich und der Schweiz fort " 
(Rodenberg's " Insel der Heiligen." Berlin, i860, vol. i. p. 321). 



EARLY HISTORY FROM NATIVE SOURCES 35 

Gaels combined had at one time penetrated as far as London and 
Kent, when Theodosius drove them back. 1 It was probably 
against Niall that Stilicho gained those successes so magnilo- 
quently eulogised by Claudian, " when the Scot moved all 
Ierne against us and the sea foamed under his hostile 
oars." Niall had eight sons, from whom the famous Ui [Ee] 
Neill are all descended. One branch of these, the branch 
descended from his son Owen, took the name of O'Neill in the 
eleventh century, not from him of the Nine Hostages, but from 
King Niall of the Black Knee, a less remote ancestor, of whom 
more later on. This was the great family of the Tyrone 
O'Neills. So solidly did the posterity of Niall establish itself, 
and upon so firm a basis was his power perpetuated, that 
almost all the following: kings of Ireland were descended from 
him, besides multitudes of illustrious families, " nearly three 
hundred of his descendants, eminent for their learning and the 
sanctity of their lives," says O'Flaherty, u have been enrolled 
in the catalogue of the saints." 2 He it was who, while plun- 
dering in Britain or Armorica, led back amongst other 
captives the youth, then sixteen years old, who was destined, 
under the title of the Holy Patrick, to revolutionise Ireland. 
St. Patrick's own " Confession " and his Epistle to Coroticus 

1 Bede describes the bitter complaints of the unfortunate Britons. 
" Repellunt," they said, " Barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad Barbaras. 
Inter haec duo genera funerum oriuntur, aut jugulamur aut mergimur." 

2 The Northern and Southern Ui Neill [i.e., the septs descended from Niall] 
are so inextricably connected with all Irish history that it may be as well to 
state here that four of his sons settled in Meath, and that their descendants 
are called the Southern Ui Neill. The so-called Four Tribes of Tara — O'Hart, 
O'Regan, O'Kelly of Bregia, and O'Conolly — with many more subsepts, 
belong to them. The other four sons are the ancestors of the Northern Ui 
Neill of Ulster, the O'Neills, O'Donnells, and their numerous co-relatives. 
The Ui Neill remained to the last the ablest and most powerful clan in Ireland, 
only rivalled — if rivalled at all — by the O'Briens of Thomond, and later by 
the Geraldines, who were of Italian lineage according to most authori- 
ties. " Giraldini qui amplissimos et potentissimos habeunt ditiones in Austro 
et Oriente, proxime quidem ex Britannia hue venerunt, origine vera sunt 
Itali nempe vetustissimi et nobilissimi Florentini sive Amerini " (Peter 
Lombard, " De Regno Hibernian" Louvain, 1632, p. 4). 



$6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

have come down to us — the former preserved in the Book ot 
Armagh, a manuscript copied by a scribe named Ferdomnach 
in 807 (or 812 according to a truer chronology), apparehtly 
from St. Patrick's own copy, for at the end of the Confession 
the scribe adds this note : " Thus far the volume which Patrick 
wrote with his own hand." 1 In this ancient manuscript (itself 
only a copy of older ones so damaged as to be almost illegible 2 
to the scribe who copied them in 807, a little more than three 
hundred years after St. Patrick's death), we find nearly a dozen 
mentions of Niall of the Nine Hostages, of his son Laeghaire 
[Leary], and several more who lived before St. Patrick's arrival, 
and so find ourselves for the first time upon tolerably solid 
historical ground, which from this out never deserts us. St. 
Columcille, the evangeliser of the Picts and the founder of 
Iona, was the great-great-grandson of this Niall, and the great- 
grandson of Conall Gulban, so celebrated even to this day in 
Irish romance and history.3 

Ascertainable authenticated Irish history, then, begins with 
Niall and with Patrick, but in this chapter we have gone 

1 " Hucusque volumen quod Patricius manu conscripsit sua. Septima 
decima martii die translatus est Patricius ad coelos." 

2 See Father Hogan's preface to his admirable edition of St. Patrick's 
life from the Book of Armagh edited by him for the Bolandists, where 
he says of the MS. that though beautifully coloured it is " tamen difficilis 
lectu, turn quod quaedam voces aut etiam paginae plus minus injuria tem- 
porum deletae sunt, turn quod ipsum exemplar unde exscriptus est jam 
videtur talem injuriam passum : quod indicant rursus notae subinde ad 
marginem appositae, praesertim vero signum h (vel in i.e. incerium ?) et Z 
(Z,t]tei) quas dubitationem circa aliquot vocum scriptionem prodere 
videntur." The words incertus liber hie, "the book is not clear here," 
occur twice, and the zeta of inquiry eight times. See Dr. Reeves' paper, 
" Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy." August, 1891. 

3 Heaven itself was believed to have reverenced this magnificent 
genealogy, for in his life, in the Book of Lecan, we read how " each man 
of the bishops used to grind a quern in turn, howbeit an angel from 
heaven used to grind on behalf of Columcille. This was the honour which 
the Lord used to render him because of the eminent nobleness of his 
race " ! See Stokes' " Lives of the Saints, from the Book of Lecan," 
P- 173- 



EARLY HISTORY FROM NATIVE SOURCES 37 

behind it to see what may be learned from native sources — 
rather traditional than historical — of Irish life and history, from 
the founding of Emania three hundred years before Christ 
down to the coming of St. Patrick. But for all the things 
which we have recounted we have no independent external 
testimony, nor have we now any manuscripts remaining of 
which we could say, " We have here documentary evidence 
fifteen or twenty centuries old attesting the truth of these 
things." No ; we are entirely dependent for all that pre- 
Patrician history upon native evidence alone, and that evidence 
has come down to us chiefly but not entirely in manuscripts 
copied in the twelfth and in later centuries. 



CHAPTER IV 

HOW FAR CAN NATIVE SOURCES BE RELIED ON ? 

It must next be considered what amount of reliance can be 
placed upon the Irish annals and annalists, who have preserved 
to us our early history. If, in those few cases where we happen 
to have some credible external evidences of early events, we find 
our native annalists notoriously at variance with such evidences, 
our faith in them must of necessity be shaken. If, on the other 
hand, we find them to coincide fairly well with these other 
accounts taken from foreign sources, we shall be inclined to 
place all the more reliance on their accuracy when they record 
events upon which no such sidelights can be thrown. 

Now, from the nature of the case, it is exceedingly difficult, 
considering how isolated Ireland was while evolving her own 
civilisation, and considering how little in early ages her internal 
affairs clashed with those of Europe, to find any specific events 
of which we have early external evidence. We can, for instance, 
apart from our own annals and poems, procure no corrobora- 
tive evidence of the division of Ireland between Conn and 
Owen, of the destruction of Emania by the Three Collas, or of 
the battle of Gabhra. But despite the silence upon Irish affairs 
of ancient foreign writers, we have luckily another class of 
proof of the highest possible value, brought to light by the dis- 

38 



CAN NATIVE SOURCES BE RELIED ON? 39 

coveries of modern science, and powerfully strengthening the 
credibility of our annals. This is nothing less than the record 
of natural phenomena. If we find, on calculating backwards, 
as modern science has enabled us to do, that such events as the 
appearance of comets or the occurrence of eclipses are recorded 
to the day and hour by the annalists, we can know with some- 
thing like certainty that these phenomena were recorded at the 
time of their appearance by writers who observed them, whose 
writings must have been actually consulted and seen by those 
later annalists, whose books we now possess. Nobody could 
think of saying of natural phenomena thus accurately recorded, 
as they might of mere historical narratives, that they were 
handed down by tradition only, and reduced to writing for the 
first time many centuries later. Now it so happens that the 
Annals of Ulster, annals which treat of Ireland and Irish his- 
tory from about the year 444, but of which the written copy 
dates only from the fifteenth century, contain from the year 
496 to 884, as many as 18 records of eclipses and comets 
which agree exactly even to the day and hour with the 
calculations of modern astronomers. How impossible it is 
to keep such records unless written memoranda are made of 
them by eye-witnesses, is shown by the fact that Bede, born 
himself in 675, in recording the great solar eclipse which took 
place only eleven years before his own birth is yet two days 
astray in his date ; while, on the other hand, the Ulster annals 
give not only the correct day but the correct hour — thus 
showing that Cathal Maguire, their compiler, had access 
either to the original or to a copy of the original account of an 
eye-witness. 1 

Again, we occasionally find the early records of the two great 

1 Nor is this mere conjecture ; it is fully borne out by the annals them- 
selves, which actually give us their sources of information. Thus under 
the year 439, we read that " Chronicon magnum (i.e., The Senchas Mor) 
scriptum est "; at 467 and 468, the compiler quotes " Sic in Libro Cuanach 
inveni " ; at 482, " Ut Cuana scripsit " ; in 507, "Secundum librum 
Mochod " ; in 628, " Sicut in libro Dubhdaleithe narratur," &c. 



40 LITERARY HISTORY 01 IRELAND 

branches of the Celtic race, the Gaelic and the Cymric, throwing 
a mutual light upon each other. There exists, for instance, an 
ancient Irish saga, of which several versions have come down 
to us, a saga well known in Irish literature under the 
title of the Expulsion of the Desi, 1 which, according to 
Zimmer — than whom there can be no better authority — was, 
judging from its linguistic forms, committed to writing in the 
eighth century. The Desi were a tribe settled in Bregia, in 
Meath, and the Annals 2 tell us that the great Cormac mac 
Art defeated them in seven battles, forcing them to emigrate and 
seek new homes. This composition describes their wanderings 
in detail. Some of the tribe we are told migrated to Munster, 
whilst another portion crossed the Irish Sea and settled down 
in that part of South Wales called Dyfed, under the leadership 
of one Eochaidh [Yohy], thence called " from-over-sea." There 
Eochaidh with his sons and grand-children lived and died, and 
propagated themselves to the time of the writer, who states 
that they were then — at the time he wrote — ruled over by one. 
Teudor mac Regin, king of Dyfed, who was then alive, and 
whose pedigree is traced in fourteen generations up to the 
father of that Eochaidh who had led them over in Cormac mac 
Art's time. Taking a generation as 33 years, and starting with 
the year 270, about the time of the expulsion of the Desi, we 
find that Teudor Mac Regin should have reigned about the 
year 730, and the Irish saga must have been written at this 
time, which agrees with Zimmer's reckoning, although his 
computation is based on purely linguistic grounds. That school 
of interpreters who decry all ancient Irish history as a mixture 
of mythology and fiction, and who can see in Cormac mac 
Art only a sun-god, would probably ascribe the expulsion of the 
Desi and other records of a similar nature to the creative imagi- 
nation of the later Irish, who, they hold, invented their genea- 
logies as they did their history. But in this case it happens by 
the merest accident that we have collateral evidence of these 
f " Jndarba mna nPesi." ? See " Four Masters," A,P, 26^, 



CAN NATIVE SOURCES BE RELIED ON? 41 

events, for in a Welsh pedigree of Ellen, mother of Owen, son 
of Howel Dda, preserved in a manuscript of the eleventh cen- 
tury, this same Teudor is mentioned, and his genealogy traced 
back by the Welsh scribe ; the names of eleven of his ancestors, 
corresponding — except for inconsiderable orthographical differ- 
ences — with those preserved in the ancient Irish text. 

"When we consider," says Dr. Kuno Meyer, " that these Welsh 
names passed through the hands of who knows how many Irish 
scribes, one must marvel that they have preserved their forms so 
well;" and he adds, "in the light of this evidence alone, I have no 
hesitation in saying that the settlement of an Irish tribe in Dyfed 
during the latter half of the third century must be considered a well- 
authenticated fact." l 

Dr. Reeves cites another remarkable case of undesigned coin- 
cidence which strongly testifies to the accuracy of the Irish 
annalists. In the Antiphonary of Bangor, an ancient service 
book still preserved on the Continent, we find the names of 
fifteen abbots of the celebrated monastery of Bangor — at which 
the heresiarch Pelagius was probably educated — and these 
fifteen abbots are recorded by the same names and in the same 
order as in the Annals ; " and this undesigned coincidence," says 
Reeves, " is the more interesting because the testimonies are 
perfectly independent, the one being afforded by Irish records 
which never left the kingdom, and the other by a Latin com- 
position which has been a thousand years absent from the 
country where it was written." 

Another incidental proof of the accuracy of early Irish 
literary records is afforded by the fact that on the few occa- 
sions where the Saxon Bede, when making mention of some 
Scot, i.e.) Irishman, gives also the name of his father, this 
name coincides with that given by the annals. 

We may, then, take it, without any credulity on our part, 

1 See Kuno Meyer's paper on the " Early Relations between the Gael 
and Brython," read before the Hon. Society of Cymmrodorjon, .May 28, 



42 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

that Irish history as drawn from native sources may be very 
well relied upon from about the middle of the fourth century. 
Beyond that date, going backwards, we have no means at our 
disposal for checking its accuracy or inaccuracy, no means of 
determining the truth of such events as the struggle between 
Conn and Owen, between the Fenian bands and the High- 
king, between Ulster under Conor and Connacht under 
Meve, no means of determining the actual existence of 
Conaire the Great, or of Cuchulain, or of the heroes of the 
Red Branch, or of Finn mac Cumhail [Cool] and his son 
Ossian and his grandson Oscar. Is there any solid ground 
for treating these things as objective history ? 

It has been urged that it is unphilosophic of us and was 
unphilosophic of the annalist Tighearnach to fix the reign of 
Cimbaeth * [Kimbas], who built Emania, the capital of 
Ulster, some three hundred years before Christ, as a terminus 
from which we may begin to place some confidence in Irish 
accounts, seeing that the Annals carry back the list of Irish 
kings with apparently equal certainty for centuries past him, 
and back even to the coming of the Milesians, which took 
place at the lowest computation some six or seven hundred 
years before. All that can be said in answer to this, is to 
point out that there must have been hundreds of documents 
existing at the time when Tighearnach wrote, " the countless 
hosts of the illuminated books of the men of Erin," as his con- 
temporary Angus called them — records of the past which he 
was able to examine and consult, but which we are not. 



1 To start with Cimbaeth as Tighearnach does " is just as uncritical as 
to take the whole tale of kings from the very beginning," says Dr. 
Atkinson, in his preface to the Contents of the facsimile Book of Leinster ; 
and he adds, " if the kings who are supposed to have lived about fifteen 
centuries before Christ are mere figments, which is tolerably certain, there 
is little more reason for believing in the kings who reigned after Christ 
prior to the introduction of writing with Christianity (sic) into the island," 
— an unconvincing sorites! One hundred and thirty-six pagan and six 
Christian kings in all reigned at Tara according to the fictions of the Bards. 



CAN NATIVE SOURCES BE RELIED ON? 43 

Tighearnach was a professed annalist, " a modern but cautious 
chronicler,'' x and for his age a very well-instructed man, and 
it seems evident that he would not have placed the founding 
of Emania as a terminus a quo if he had not inferred rightly or 
wrongly that native accounts could be fairly trusted from that 
forward. It certainly creates some feeling of confidence to 
find him pushing aside as uncertain and unproven the arid roll 
of kings so confidently carried back for hundreds of years 
before his starting-point. The historic sense was well 
developed in Tighearnach, and he no doubt discredited these 
far-reaching claims either because he could not find sufficiently 
early documentary evidence to corroborate them, or more 
likely because such accounts as he had access to, began to 
contradict one another and were unable to stand any scrutiny 
from this time backwards. With him it was probably largely 
a question of documents. But this brings us at once to the 
question, when did the Irish learn the use of letters and begin 
to write, to which we shall turn our attention in a future 
chapter. 

1 Dr. Whitley Stokes' "Tripartite Life of St. Patrick," vol. i. p. cxxix. 
"That Tighearnach had access to some library or libraries furnished with 
books of every description is manifest from his numerous references ; and 
the correctness of his citations from foreign authors, with whose works 
we are acquainted may be taken as a surety for the genuineness of his 
extracts from the writings of our own native authors now lost." For the 
non-Irish portions of his annals Tighearnach used, as Stokes has shown, 
St. Jerome's " Interpretatio Chronicae Eusebii Pamphili," the seven books 
of the history of Paulus Orosius, " The Chronicon, or Account of the Six 
Ages of the World," in Bede's Works, "The Vulgate," "The Etymolo- 
garium," " Libri XX of Isodorus Hispalensis," Josephus' " Antiquities of 
the Jews," probably in a Latin translation, and perhaps the lost Chronicon 
of Julius Africanus. 



CHAPTER V 

THE PRE-MILESIAN FABLE AND EARLY PANTHEON 

In investigating the very early history of Ireland we are met 
with a mass of pseudo-historic narrative and myth, woven 
together into an apparently homogeneous whole, and all now 
posing as re?l history. This is backed up, and eked out, by a 
most elaborate system of genealogy closely interwoven with 
it, which, together with a good share of the topographical 
nomenclature of the island, is there to add its entire influence 
to that of historian and annalist in apparently attesting the 
truth of what these latter have recorded. 

If in seeking for a path through this maze we grasp the 
skirt of the genealogist and follow his steps for a clue, we shall 
find ourselves, in tracing into the past the ancestry of any 
Milesian chief, invariably landed at the foot of some one 
of four persons, three of them, Ir, Eber, Eremon, 1 being sons 
of that Milesius who made the Milesian conquest, and the 
fourth being Lughaidh [Lewy], son of Ith, who was a 
nephew of the same. On one or other of these four does the 
genealogy of every chief and prince abut, so that all end 
ultimately in Milesius. 

Milesius' own genealogy and the wanderings of his ancestor? 

* In modern times spelt Eibhear [4£virJ and Eireamhoin [TEra-voneJ. 



PRE-MILESIAN FABLE AND PANTHEON 45 

are also recounted for many generations before they land in 
Ireland, but during this pre-Milesian period there are no side- 
genealogies, the ancestors of Milesius himself alone are given, 
traced through twenty-two apparently Gaelic names and 
thirteen Hebrew ones, passing through Japhet and ending in 
Adam. It is only with the landing of the three sons and 
the nephew of Milesius that the ramifications of Irish genea- 
logies begin, and they are backed up by the whole weight of 
the Irish topographical system which is shot through and 
through with places named after personages and events of the 
early Milesian period, and of the period of the Tuatha De 
Danann. 

It will be well to give here a brief resume of the accounts of 
the Milesians' wanderings before they arrived in Ireland. Briefly 
then the Gaels are traced back all the way to Fenius Farsa, a 
king of Scythia, who is then easily traced up to Adam. But 
beginning with this Fenius Farsa we find that he started a 
great school for learning languages. His son w^s Niul, who 
also taught languages, and his son again was Gaedhal, from 
whom the Gaels are so called. This Niul went into Egypt 
and married Scota, daughter of Pharaoh. This is a post- 
Christian invention, which is not satisfied without bringing 
Niul into contact with Aaron, whom he befriended, in return 
for which Moses healed his son Gaedhal from the bite of a 
serpent. Since then says an ancient verse — 

" No serpent nor vile venomed thing 
Can live upon the Gaelic soil, 
No bard nor stranger since has found 
A cold repulse from a son of Gaedhal." 

Gaedhal's son was Esru, whose son was Sru, and when the 
Egyptians oppressed them he and his people emigrated to 
Crete. His son was Eber Scot, from whom some say the 
Gaels were called Scots, but most of the Irish antiquarians 
maintain that they arc called Scots because they once came 



46 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

from Scythia, 1 to which cradle of the race Eber Scot led the 
nation back again. Expelled from Scythia a couple of genera- 
tions later the race plant themselves in the country of Gaeth- 
luighe, where they were ruled over by one called Eber ot 
the White Knee. The eighth in descent from him emigrated 
with four ships to Spain. His son was Breogan, who built 
Brigantia. His grandson was Golamh, called Miledh Easpain, 
f.*., Warrior of Spain, 2 whose name has been universally, but 
badly, Latinised Milesius, and it was his three sons and his 
nephew who landed in Ireland and who planted there the 
Milesian people. Milesius himself never put foot in Ireland, 
but he seems in his own person to have epitomised the 
wanderings of his race, for we find him returning to Scythia, 
making his way thence into Egypt, marrying Scota, a daughter 
of Pharaoh, and finally returning to Spain. 

Much or all of this pre-Milesian account of the race must be 
unhesitatingly set down to the influence of Christianity, and 
to the invention of early Christian bards who felt a desire to 
trace their kings back to Japhet.3 The native unchristianised 

1 It is just as likely that, as the only name of any people known to the 
early Irish antiquaries which bore some resemblance to their own was 
Scythia, they said that the Scoti came from thence. 

2 " The race of the warrior of Spain " continued until recent times to be 
a favourite bardic synonym for the Milesians. There is a noble war ode 
by one of the O'Dalys which I found preserved in the so-called " Book of 
the O'Byrnes," in Trinity College Library, in which he celebrates a victory 
of the O'Byrnes of Wicklow over the English about the year 1580 in 
these words : — 

" Sgeul tdsgmhar do rdinigfd chriochaibh Fail 
Da tdinig lan-tuile i nGaoidhiltigh (f) Chldir. 
Do chloinn dird dithiosaigh Mhile Easpain 
Toisg airmioch (f), ar Idr an laoi ghil bhdin." 

It is to be observed that of the four great Irish stocks the descendants of 
Ith are often called the Clanna Breogain. 

3 Nennius, in the time of Charlemagne, quotes the Annals of the Scots, 
and the narrative of the peritissimi Scotorum as his authorities for deducing 
the Scots, i.e. Irish, from a family of Scythia, who fled out of Egypt with 
the children of Israel, which shows that the original narrative had 
assumed this Christian form in the eighth century. In the Book of 



PRE-MILESIAN FABLE AND PANTHEON 47 

genealogies all converge in the sons and nephew of Milesius. 
The legends of their exploits and those of their successors are 
the real race-heritage of the Gael, unmixed with the fanciful 
Christian allusions and Hebraic adulterations of the pre- 
Milesian story, which was the last to be invented. 

The genuine and early combination of Irish myth and history 
centres not on foreign but on Irish soil, in the accounts of the 
Nemedians, the Firbolg, the Tuatha De Danann, and the early 
Milesians, accounts which have been handed down to us in short 
stories and more lengthy sagas, as well as in the bold brief 
chronicles of the annalists. No doubt the stories of the landing 
of his race on Irish soil, and the exploits of his first chieftains were 
familiar in the early days to every Gael. They became, as it 
were, part and parcel of his own life and being, and were pre- 
served with something approaching a religious veneration. His 
belief in them entered into his whole political and social system, 
the holding of his tribe-lands was bound up with it, and a highly- 
paid and influential class of bardic historians was subsidised 
with the express purpose of propagating these traditions and 
maintaining them unaltered. 

Everything around him recalled to the early Gael the 
traditional history of his own past. The two hills of Slieve 
Luachra in Kerry he called the paps of Dana, 1 and he knew 
that Dana was the mother of the gods Brian, Iuchar, and 
Iucharba, the story of whose sufferings, at the hands of Lugh 

Invasions — the earliest MS. of which is of the twelfth century— the Christian 
invention has made considerable strides, and we start from Magog, Japhet, 
and Noah, and from the Tower of Babel pass into Egypt. Nel or Niul is 
called from the Plain of Senaar to the Court of Pharaoh, and marries his 
daughter Scota, and their son is named Gaedhal. They have their own 
exodus, and arrive in Scythia after many adventures ; thence into Spain, 
where Breogan built the tower from whose top Ireland was seen. It would 
seem from this that the later writer of the Book of Invasions enhanced the 
simpler account which the Irish had given Nennius three or four centuries 
before. Zimmer, however, thinks that Nennius quoted from a preceding 
'Book of Invasions now lost. 
1 Da chich Danainne. 



43 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

the Long-handed, has in later times so often drawn tears from 
its auditors. When he beheld the mighty barrows piled upon 
the banks of the Boyne, 1 he knew that it was over the 
Dagda — an Irish Jupiter — and over his three sons 2 that they 
were heaped ; and one of these, Angus of the Boyne, was, down 
to the present century, reverenced as the presiding genius of the 
spot. The mighty monuments of Knock Aine in Limerick, 
and Knock Greine, as well as those of Knowth, Dowth, and 
New Grange, were all connected with his legendary past. It 
was Lugh of the Tuatha De Danann, he knew, who had first 
established the great fair of Tailltin,3 to which he and his 
friends went from year to year to meet each other, and contract 
alliances for their grown children. The great funeral mound, 
round which the games were held, was sacred to Talti, the foster- 
mother of Lugh, who had there been buried, and in whose 
honour the games in which he participated were held upon the 
day which he called — and still calls, though he has now for- 
gotten why — Lughnasa or Lugh's gathering. 4 His own 
country he called — and still calls — by the various names of 
Eire, Fodhla [Fola], and Banba, and they, as he knew, were 
three queens 5 of the Tuatha De Danann. The Gael of 
Connacht knew that Moycullen, near Galway, was so named 
from Uillin, a grandson of the Tuatha De Danann king 
Nuada ; and Loch Corrib from Orbsen, the other name of the 
sea-god Manannan, slain there by this Uillin, and each of the 
provinces was studded with such memorials. 

The early Milesian invaders left their names just as closely 

1 Sidh an Bhrogha [Shee in Vrow-a]. 

2 Aengus, Aedh, and Cermad. 

s Now monstrously called Telltown by the Ordnance Survey people, as 
though to make it as like an English word as possible, quite heedless of the 
remonstrance of the great topographer O'Donavan, and of the fact that 
they are demolishing a great national landmark. 

4 Or perhaps " Lugh's Memorial." Lughnas is the 1st of August, and 
the month has received its name in Irish from Lugh's gathering. 

s The Irish translation of Nennius ascribed to Giolla Caoimhghin [Gilla 
Keevin], who died in 1012, calls them goddesses, " tri bande Folia Banba 
ocus Eire." 



PRE-MILESIAN FABLE AND PANTHEON 49 

imprinted upon our topography as did their predecessors the 
Tuatha De Danann. The great plain of Bregia in Meath was 
so called from Brega, son of that Breogan who built Brigantia. 
Slieve Cualann in Wicklow — now hideously and absurdly called 
the Great Sugar Loaf! — is named from Cuala, another son of 
Breogan ; Slieve Bladhma, or Bloom, is called from another son 
of the same ; and from yet another is named the Plain of 
Muirthemni, where was fought the great battle in which fell 
Cuchulain " fortissimus heros Scotorum." The south of 
Munster is called Corca Luighe from Lughaidh, son of Ith, 
nephew of Milesius. The harbour of Drogheda was called 
Inver Colpa, from Colpa of the sword, another son of Milesius, 
who was there drowned when trying to effect a landing. 
The Carlingford Mountains were called Slieve Cualgni, and 
a well-known mountain in Armagh Slieve Fuad, from two 
more sons of Breogan of Brigantia, slain after the second 
battle with the Tuatha De Danann, while they followed up 
the chase. The sandhills in the west of Munster, where 
Donn, the eldest son of Milesius, was shipwrecked and lost his 
life — as did his whole crew consisting as is said of twenty-four 
warriors, five chiefs, twelve women, four servants, eight 
rowers, and fifty youths-in-training — is called Donn's House. 
So vivid is this tradition even still, that we find a Munster poet 
as late as the last century addressing a poem to this Donn as 
the tutelary divinity of the place, and asking him to take him 
into his sidh [shee] or fairy mound and become his patron. 
This poem is remarkable, as showing that in popular opinion 
the early Milesians shared the character of sub-gods, fairies, or 
beings of supernatural power, in common with the Tuatha 
De Danann themselves, for the poet treats him as still living 
and reigning in state, as peer of Angus of the Boyne, and 
cousin of Cliona, queen of the Munster fairies. 1 Wherever he 

1 It is worth while to quote some of these hitherto unpuhlished verses 
from a copy in my possession. The author, Andrew Mac Curtin, a good 
scholar and poet of Munster, knew of course perfectly well that Donn 



50 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

turned the Gael was thus confronted with scenes from his own 
past, or with customs — like the August games at Tailltin — 
deliberately established to perpetuate them. 

In process of time, partly perhaps through the rationalising 
influences of a growing civilisation, but chiefly through the 
direct action of Christianity, with which he came into active 
contact in perhaps the fourth, or certainly in the fifth cen- 
tury, the remembrance of the old Gaelic theogony, and the old 
Gaelic deities and his religious belief in them became blunted, 
and although no small quantity of matter that is purely pagan, 
and an immense amount of matter, but slightly tinged with 
Christianity, has been handed down to us, yet gods, heroes, 

was a Milesian, yet he, embodying in his poem the popular opinion on the 
subject, treats him as a god or superior being, calls him brother or cousin 
of Aine and Aoife [Eefi] and " of the great son of Lear {i.e. Manannan], 
who used to walk the smooth sea," and relates him to Angus Og, and Lugh 
the Long-handed, says that he witnessed the tragedy of the sons of Usnach, 
the feats of Finn mac Cool, and the battle of Clontarf, and treats him as 
still living and powerful. The poem begins, Beannughadh doimhin duita 
Dhoinn na Ddibhche. It goes on to say — ■ 

" Nach tu brathair Aine as Aoife 
A's mic an Deaghadh do b' ard-fhlaith ar tiorthaibh, 
A's moir-mhic Lir do ritheadh an mhin-mhuir 
Dhoinn Chnuic-na-ndos agus Dhoinn Chnuic Firinn' ? 
Nach tu gan doirbhe do h-oileadh 'san riogh-bhrogh 
Ag Aongus 6g na Boinne caoimhe, 
Do bhi tu ag Lugha ad' chongnamh i gcaoinsgir [calh] 
Ag claoidh Balair a dhanar 's a dhraoithe. 
Do bhi tu ag maidhm anaghaidh mic Mhiledh 
Ag teacht asteach thar neart na gaoithe : 
'S na dhiaigh sin i gciantaibh ag Naoise ; 
Do bhi tu ag Conall 'san gcosgar do bh' aoirde 
Ag ceann de'n ghad de cheannaibh righteadh : 
Budh thaoiseach treasa i gcathaibh Chuinn thu." 

The allusion in the last line but one is to the heads that Conall Cearnach 
strung upon the gad or rod, to avenge the death of Cuchulain, for which 
see later on. 

Curtin finall} 7 - asks Donn to let him into his fairy mansion, if not as a 
poet to enliven his feasts, then at least as a horse-boy to groom his horses. 

" Munar bhodhar thu o throm ghuth na taoide 
No mur bhfuarais bas mar chach a Dhoinn ghil," &c. 

I.e., " unless thou hast grown deaf by the constant voice of the tide, or 
unless, O bright Donn, thou hast died like everybody else ! " 



PRE-MILESIAN FABLE AND PANTHEON 51 

and men have been so far brought to a common level, that it 
is next to impossible at first sight to disentangle them or to say 
which is which. 

Very probably there was, even before the introduction of 
Christianity, no sharply-defined line of demarcation drawn 
between gods and heroes, that, in the words of Pindar, %v 
avSpwv ev 6ewv ytvog, " one was the race of gods and men," 
and when in after times the early mythical history of Ireland 
came to be committed to parchment, its historians saw in the 
Irish pantheon nothing but a collection of human beings. It 
is thus, no doubt, that we find the Fomorians and the Tuatha 
De Danann posing as real people, whilst in reality it is more 
than likely that they figured in the scheme of Gaelic mythology 
as races of beneficent gods and of evil deities, or at least as 
races of superhuman power. 

The early Irish writers who redacted the mythical history 
of the country were no doubt imbued with the spirit of the 
so-called Greek " logographers," who, when collecting the 
Grecian myths from the poets, desired, while not eliminating 
the miraculous, yet to smooth away all startling discrepancies 
and present them in a readable and, as it were, a historical 
series. 1 Others no doubt wished to rationalise the early myths 
so far as they conveniently could, as even Herodotus shows an 
inclination to do with regard to the Greek marvels ; and the 
later annalists and poets of the Irish went as far as ever went 
Euhemerus, reducing gods and heroes alike to the level of 
common men. 

We find Keating, who composed in Irish his Forus Feasa 
or History, in the first half of the seventeenth century, 
and who only re-writes or abbreviates what he found before 
him in the ancient books of the Gaels now lost, distracted 
between his desire to euhemerise — in other words, to make 
mere men of the gods and heroes — and his unflinching fidelity 

1 Hellanikus, one of the best known of these, went so far ;is to give the 
very year, and even the very day of the capture of Troy, 



52 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

to his ancient texts. Thus he professes to give the names or 
"the most famous and noble persons of the Tuatha De Danann," 
and amongst them he mentions " the six sons of Delbaeth, son 
of Ogma, namely, Fiacadh, Ollamh, Indaei, Brian, Iuchar, 
and Iucharba" x but in another place he quotes this verse from 
some of his ancient sources — 

" Brian Iucharba and the great Iuchar, 
The three gods of the sacred race of Dana, 
Fell at Mana on the resistless sea 
By the hand of Lughaidh, son of Ethlenn." 

These whom the ancient verse distinctly designates as gods, 
Keating makes merely " noble persons," but at the very same 
time in treating of the De Danann he interpolates amongst his 
list of their notable men and women this curious sentence : 2 

1 Mac Firbis, in his great MS. book of genealogies, marks the mythical 
character of these personages still more clearly, for in his short chapter 
on the Tuatha De Danann he describes them as of light yellow hair, etc. 
[moriga finbuidhe orra], and gives the names of their three Druids and 
their three distributors, who were called Enough, Plenty, Filling [Sdith, 
Leor, Linad]; their three gillies, three horses, three hounds, three musicians ; 
Music Sweet and Sweetstring [Ceol Bind Tetbind], and so on, all evidently 
allegorical. See facsimile of the Book of Leinster, p. 30, col. 4, 1. 40, and 
p. 187, col. 3, 1. 55, for the oldest form of this. , 

2 The following is the whole quotation from O'Mahony's Keating (for an 
account of this book see below, p. 556) : " Here follows an enumeration 
of the most famous and noble persons of the Tuatha Da Danann, viz., 
Eochaidh the Ollamh called the Dagda, Ogma, Alloid, Bres, and Delbaeth, 
the five sons of Elathan, son of Niad, and Manannan, son of Alloid, 
son of Delbaeth. The six sons of Delbaeth, son of Ogma, namely, 
Fiachadh, Ollamh, Indaei, Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba. Aengus Aedh 
Kermad and Virdir, the four sons of the Dagda. Lughaidh, son of Cian, 
son of Diancecht, sons of Esary, son of Niad, son of Indaei. Gobnenn the 
smith, Credni the artist, Diancecht the physician, Luchtan the mason, and 
Carbni the poet, son of Tura, son of Turell. Begneo, son of Carbni, Cat- 
cenn, son of Tabarn, Fiachadh, son of Delbaeth, with his son Ollamh, 
Caicer and Nechtan, the two sons of Namath. Eochaidh the rough, son 
of Duach Dall. Sidomel, the son of Carbri Crom, son of Elcmar, son of 
Delbaeth. Eri Fodhla and Banba, the three daughters of Fiachadh, son 
of Delbaeth, son of Ogma, and Ernin, daughter of Edarlamh, the mother 
of these women. The following are the names of their three goddesses, 
viz., Badhbh, Macha, and Morighan. Bechoil and Danaan were their two 
Ban-tuathachs, or chief ladies, Brighid was their poetess, Fe and Men 



PRE-MILESIAN FABLE AND PANTHEON 53 

"The following are the names of three of their goddesses, viz., 
Badhbh [Bive], Macha, and Morighan." 1 

There are many allusions to the old Irish pantheon in 
Cormac's Glossary, which is a compilation of the ninth or tenth 
century explanatory of expressions which had even at that early 
date become obscure or obsolete, and many of these are evidently 
of pagan origin. Cormac describes Ana as mater de or um hiber- 
nensium, the mother of the Irish gods, and he adds, " Well 
used she to nourish the gods, it is from her name is said 6 anae,' 
i.e., abundance, and from her name is called the two paps of 
Ana." Buanann, says Cormac, was the " nurse of heroes," as 
" Anu was mother of the gods, so Buanann was mother of the 
c Fiann.' " Etan was nurse of the poets. Brigit, of which 
we have now made a kind of national Christian name, was in 
pagan times a female poet, daughter of the Dagda. Her 
divinity is evident from what Cormac says of her, namely, that 
" she was a goddess whom poets worshipped, for very great 
and very noble was her superintendence, therefore call they 
her goddess of poets by this name, whose sisters were Brigit, 
woman of smith-work, and Brigit, woman of healing, namely, 
goddesses — from whose names Brigit 2 was with all Irishmen 
called a goddess," i.e., the terms "Brigit" and "goddess" were 
synonymous (?) The name itself he derives fancifully from 
the words breo-shaighit, "fiery arrow," as though the inspirations 

were the ladies or ban-tuathachs of their two king-bards, and from them 
Magh Femen in Minister has its name. Of them also was Triathri Tore, 
from whom Tretherni in Munster is called. Cridinbhel, Brunni, and 
Casmnel were their three satirists." 

1 O'Cnrry, who, like his great compeer O'Donovan, naturally took the 
De Danann to be a real race of men, comically calls these goddesses 
" three of the noble non-professional druidesses of the Tuatha De Danann." 
(" M. and C," vol. ii. p. 187). We have seen how the Irish Nennius calls 
the three queens of the De Danann goddesses also. 

2 The "g" of Brigit was pronounced in Old Irish so that the word rhymed 
to English spirit. In later times the "g" became aspirated and 
silent, the "t" turned into " d," and the word is now pronounced 
" B'reed," and in English very often " Bride," which is an improvement 
on the hideous Brid-get. 



54 LITERARY 'HISTORY OF IRELAND 

of a poet pierced like fiery arrows. Diancecht Cormac calls 
" the sage of the leech-craft of Ireland," but in the next line 
we read that he was so called because he was " Dia na cecht," 
*.*., Deus salutis, or god of health. Zeuss quotes an incantation 
to this god from a manuscript which is, he says, at least a 
thousand years old. His daughter was Erin, an artificer, one 
of whose sayings is quoted by Cormac. Neith was the god of 
battle among the Irish pagans, Nemon was his wife. The 
euhemerising tendency comes out strongly in Cormac's 
account of Manannan, a kind of Irish Proteus and Neptune 
combined, who according to him was "a renowned trader 
who dwelt in the Isle of Man, he was the best pilot in the 
West of Europe ; through acquaintance with the sky he knew 
the quarter in which would be fair weather and foul weather, 
and when each of these two seasons would change. Hence 
the Scots and Britons called him a god of the sea. Thence, 
too, they said he was the sea's son — Mac Lir, i.e., son of the 
sea." 

Another ancient Irish gloss x alludes to the mysterious 
Mor-ngan or war-goddess, of whom we shall hear more later 
on ; and to Machae, another war-goddess, " of whom is said 
Machas's mast-feeding," meaning thereby, " the heads of men 
that have been slaughtered." 

From all that we have said it clearly appears that carefully 
as the Christianised Irish strove to euhemerise their pantheon, 
they were unable to succeed. If, as Keating acknowledges, 
Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba were gods, then a fortiori much 
more so must have been the more famous Lugh, who compassed 
their death, and the Dagda, and Angus Og. Keating himself, 
in giving us a list of the famous Tuatha De Danann has 
probably given us also the names of a large number of primitive 
Celtic deities — not that these were at all confined to the De 
Danann tribes. 

It is remarkable that there is no mention of temples nor or 

1 H. 2, 16, col. 119. Quoted by Stokes, "Old Irish Glossaries," p. xxxv. 



PRE-MILESIAN FABLE AND PANTHEON 55 

churches dedicated to these Irish gods, nor do we find any of 
those inscriptions to them which are so common in Gaul, 
Belgium, Switzerland, and even Britain, but they appear from 
passages in Cormac's Glossary x to have had altars and images 
dedicated to them. 

We are forced, then, to come to the conclusion that the 
pagan Irish once possessed a large pantheon, probably as highly 
organised as that of the Scandinavians, but owing to their 
earlier and completer conversion to Christianity only traces of 
it now remain. 

1 See the word " Hindelba " in the Glossary which is thus explained, " i.e., 
the names of the altars or of those idols from the thing which they used 
to make (?) on them, namely, the delba or images of everything which 
they used to worship or of the beings which they used to adore, as, for 
instance, the form or figure of the sun on the altar." Again, the word 
" Hidoss "' is explained as coming from " the Greek eldog which is found in 
Latin, from which the word idolum, namely, the shapes or images 
[arrachta] of the idols [or elements] which the Pagans used formerly to 
make." 



CHAPTER VI 

EVIDENCE OF TOPOGRAPHY AND GENEALOGY 

The ramifications of early Irish literary history and its claims 
to antiquity are so multiple, intricate, and inter-connected, that 
it is difficult for any one who has not made a close study of it 
to form a conception of the extent it covers and the various 
districts it embraces. The early literature of Ireland is so 
bound up with the early history, and the history so bound up and 
associated with tribal names, memorial sites, patronymics, and 
topographical nomenclature, that it presents a kind of hetero- 
geneous whole, that which is recognised history running into 
and resting upon suspected or often even evident myth, while 
tribal patronymics and national genealogies abut upon both, 
and the whole is propped and supported by legions of place- 
names still there to testify, as it were, to the truth of all. 

We have already glanced *at some of the marks left by 
the mysterious De Danann race upon our nomenclature. 
Mounds, raths, and tumuli, called after them, dot all Ireland. 
It is the same with the early Milesians. It is the same 
with the men of the great pseudo-historic cycle of story- 
telling, that of Cuchulain and the Red Branch, not to speak of 
minor cycles. There is never a camping-ground of Meve's 
army on their march a century B.C. from Rathcroghan in 



TOPOGRAPHY AND GENEALOGY 57 

Roscommon to the plain of Mochruime in Louth, and never 
a skirmish fought by them that has not given its name to some 
plain or camping-ground or ford. Passing from the heroes of 
the Red Branch to the history of Finn mac Cool and the 
Fenians, we find the same thing. Finn's seat, the Hill of the 
Fenians, Diarmuid and Grainne's bed, and many other names 
derived from them or incidents connected with them, are 
equally widely scattered. 

The question now arises, does the undoubted existence of 
these place-names, many of them mentioned in the very oldest 
manuscripts we have — these manuscripts being only copies of 
still more ancient ones now lost — mentioned, too, in connec- 
tion with the celebrated events which are there said to have 
given them their names, do these and the. universally received 
genealogies of historic tribes which trace themselves back to 
some ancestor who figured at the time when these place-names 
were imposed, form credible witnesses to their substantial 
truth ? In other words, are such names as Creeveroe * (Red 
Branch) given to the spot where the Red Branch heroes have 
been always represented as residing ; or Ardee 2 (Ferdia's Ford) 
where Cuchulain fought his great single fight with that 
champion — are these to be accepted as collateral evidence of the 
Red Branch heroes of Ferdia and of Cuchulain ? Are See- 
finn 2 (Finn's seat) or Rath Coole 2 (Cool's rath) to be 
accepted as proving the existence of Finn and his father 
Cool ? 

In my opinion no stress, or very little, can be laid upon the 
argument from topography, which weighed so heavily with 
Keating, O'Donovan, and O'Curry, for if it is admitted at all it 
proves too much. If it proves the objective existence of Finn 

1 Craobh-ruadh. 

2 I.e., Ath-Fhirdia, Suidhe Fhinn, Rath Chumhail. There are See-finns 
or See-inns, i.e., Finn's seats in Cavan, Armagh, Down, King's County, 
Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Tyrone, and perhaps elsewhere, and there are many 
forts, flats, woods, rivers, bushes, and heaps, which derive their name from 
the Fenians. 



5S LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

and of Cuchulain, so does it that of Dana, "the mother of the 
gods," and of divinities by the score. Besides the Gaels brought 
their topographical nomenclature with them to Alba, and 
places named from Finn and the Fenians, are nearly as plentiful 
there as in Ireland. Wherever the early Gaels went they took 
with them their heroic legends, and wherever they settled place- 
names relating to their legends which were so much a part of 
their intellectual life, grew up round them too. Something of 
the same kind may be seen in Greece — a land which presents 
so many and so striking analogies to that of the Gael ; for 
wherever a Grecian colony settled, east or west, it was full of 
memorials of the legendary past, and Jasonia, or temples of 
Jason, and other memorials of the voyage of the Argonauts, are 
to be found from Abdera to Thrace, eastward along the coast 
of the Euxine and in the heart of Armenia and Media, just as 
memorials of the flight of Diarmuid and of Grainne from 
before Finn mac Cool may be found wherever the Gael are 
settled in Ireland, in Scotland, or the Isles. 

Having come to the conclusion that Irish topography is 
useless for proving the genuineness of past history, let us look 
at Irish genealogy. When the Mac Carthys, descendants of 
Mac Carthy Mor, trace themselves through Oilioll Olum, king 
of Ireland in the second century, to Eber Finn, son of Milesius ; 
when the O'Briens of Thomond trace themselves to the same 
through Oilioll Olum's second son ; when the O'Carrolls of Ely 
trace themselves to the same through Cian, the third son ; when 
the O'Neills trace themselves back through Niall of the Nine 
Hostages, and Conn of the Hundred Battles to Eremon, son of 
Milesius ; when the O'Driscolls trace themselves to Ith, who 
was uncle of Milesius ; when the Magennises trace themselves 
through Conall Cearnach, the Red Branch hero, back to Ir, 
the son of Milesius ; and when every sept and name and family 
and clan in Ireland fit in, and even in our oldest manuscripts 
have always fitted in, each in its own place, with universally 
mutual acknowledgment and unanimity, each man carefully 



TOPOGRAPHY AND GENEALOGY 59 

counting his ancestors through their hundredfold ramifications, 
and tracing them back first to him from whom they get their 
surname, and next to him from whom they get their tribe 
name, and from thence to the founder of their house, who in 
his turn grafts on to one of the great stems (Eremonian, Eberian, 
Irian, or Ithian) 1 ; and when not only political friendships and 
alliances, but the very holding of tribal lands, depended upon 
the strict registration and observance of these things — we ask 
again do such facts throw any light upon the credibility of 
early Irish history and early Irish records ? 

The whole intricate system of Irish genealogy, jealously 
preserved from the very first, as all Irish literature goes to 
show, 2 played so important a part in Irish national history and 
in Irish social life, and is at the same time so intimately bound 
up with the people's traditions and literature, and throws so 
much light upon the past, that it will be well to try to get a 
grip of this curious and intricate subject, so important for all 
who would attempt to arrive at any knowledge of the life and 
feelings of the Irish and Scottish Gael, and upon which so 
much formerly depended in the history and alliances of both 
races. 

All Milesian families trace themselves, as I have said, to one or 
other of the three sons of Milesius, who were Eremon, Eber, and 
Ir, or to his uncle Ith, who landed in Ireland at any time between 

1 As the various Teutonic races of Germany traced themselves up to one 
of the three main stems, Ingcevones, Iscaevones, and Herminones, who 
sprang from the sons of Mannus, whose father was the god Tuisco. 

2 A large part of the Books of Leinster, Ballymote, and Lecan, is occu- 
pied with these genealogies, continued up to date in each book. The MSS. 
H. 3. 18 and H. 2. 4 in Trinity College, Dublin, are great genealogical 
compilations. Well-known works were the Book of the genealogies of the 
Eugenians, the Book of Meath, the Book of the Connellians (i.e., of Tir- 
conncll), the genealogy of Brian, son of Eochaidh's descendants (see above, 
p. 33), the Book of Oriel, the Genealogies of the descendants of the Three 
Collas (see above, p. 33) in Erin and Scotland, the Book of the Maineach 
(men of O' Kelly's country), the Leinster Book of Genealogies, the Ulster 
Hook, the Minister Book, and others. 



60 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

1700 and 800 years before Christ according to Irish computa- 
tion. 1 But while they all trace themselves back to this point, 
it is to be observed that long before they reach it, in each of 
the four branches, some place in the long row of ancestors is 
arrived at, some name occurs, in which all or most of the 
various genealogies meet, and upon which all the branch lines 
converge. Thus in the Eberian families it is found that they 
all spring from the three sons of Oilioll [Ul-yul] Olum, who 
according to all the annals lived in the second century — in this 
Oilioll all the Eberian families converge. 

Again all, or nearly all, the Irians trace themselves to either 
Conall Cearnach or Fergus Mac Roy, the great Red Branch 
champions who lived in the North shortly before the birth of 
Christ. 

The tribes of the Ithians, the least numerous and least im- 
portant of the four, seem to meet in Mac Con, king of Ireland, 
who lived in the second century, and who is the hero of the 
saga called the Battle of Moy Mochruime, where Art, son of 
Conn of the Hundred Battles, was slain. 

In the line of Eremon only, the greatest of the four, do we 
find two pedigrees which meet at points considerably antecedent 
to the birth of Christ, for the Dal Riada of Scotland join the 
same stem as the O'Neills as much as 390 years before Christ, 
and the O'Cavanaghs at a still more remote period, in the reign 
of Ugony Mor. But setting aside these two families we find 
that all the other great reigning houses, as the Mac Donnells of 
Antrim, Maguires of Fermanagh, O'Kellys of Connacht, and 
others, either meet in the third century in Cairbre of the Liffey, 
son of King Cormac mac Art, and grandson of Conn of the 
Hundred Battles ; or else like the O'Neills of Tyrone, 
O'Donnells of Tirconnell, O'Dogherties of Inishowen, 
O'Conors of Connacht, O'Flaherties of Galway, they meet in 
a still later progenitor — the father of Niall of the Nine 
Hostages. 

1 See above, p. 17, note 2. 



TOPOGRAPHY AND GENEALOGY 61 

It will be best to examine here some typical Irish pedigree 
that we may more readily understand the system in its simplest 
form, and see how families branch from clans, and clans from 
stems. Let us take, then, the first pedigree of those given at 
the end of the Forus Feasa, that of Mac Carthy Mor, and 
study it as a type. 

This pedigree begins with Donal, who was the first of the 
Mac Carthys to be created Earl of Clancare, or Clancarthy, in 
1565. Starting from him the names of all his ancestors are 
traced back to Eber, son of Milesius. Passing over his five 
immediate ancestors, we come to the sixth. It was he who 
built the monastery of Irriallach on the Lake of Killarney. 
The seventh ancestor was Donal, from whose brother Donagh 
come the families of Ard Canachta and Croc Ornachta. The 
tenth was Donal Roe, from whom come the Clan Donal Roe, 
and from whose brother, Dermot of Tralee, come the family 
of Mac Finneens. The eleventh was Cormac Finn, from 
whom come also the Mac Carthys of Duhallow and the kings 
of Desmond ; while from his brother Donal come the Mac 
Carthys Riabhach, or Grey Mac Carthys. The thirteenth was 
Dermot of Kill Baghani, from whom come the Clan Teig Roe 
na Sgarti. The fourteenth was Cormac of Moy Tamhnaigh, 
from whose brother Teig come the Mac Auliffes of Cork. 
The fifteenth was Muireadach, who was the first of the line to 
assume the surname of Mac Carthy, which he did from his father 
Carthach, from whom all the Siol Carthaigh [Sheeol Caurhy], 
or Seed of Carthach, including the Mac Fineens, Mac Auliffes, 
etc., are descended. The seventeenth was Saerbhrethach, from 
whose brother Murrough spring the sept of the O'Callaghans. 
The nineteenth was Callaghan of Cashel, king of Munster, cele- 
brated in Irish romance for his warfare with the Danes. The 
twenty-third was Snedgus, who had a brother named Fogartach, 
from whose son Finguini sprang the Muinntir Finguini, or 
Finguini's People. The twenty-eighth was Falbi Flann, who 
was king of Munster from 622 to 633, from whose brother 



62 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Finghin sprang the sept of the O'Sullivans. The thirty-second 
was Angus, from one son of whom Eochaidh [Yohy] Finn are 
descended the O'Keefes ; while from another son Enna, spring 
the O'Dalys of Minister — he was the first king of Munster 
who became a Christian, and he was slain in 484. The thirty- 
fourth was Arc, king of Munster, from whose son Cas, spring 
the following septs : The O'Donoghue Mor — from whom 
branched off the O'Donoghue of the Glen — O'Mahony Finn 
and O'Mahony Roe, z.<?., the White and Red O'Mahonys, and 
O'Mahony of Ui Floinn Laei, and O'Mahony of Carbery, also 
O'Mullane r and O'Cronin; while from his other son, " Cairbre 
the Pict," sprang the O'Moriarties, and from Cairbre's grand- 
son came the O'Garvans. The thirty-sixth ancestor was Olild 
Flann Beg, king of Munster, who had a son from whom are 
descended the sept of O'Donovan, and the O'Coileains, or 
Collinses. And a grandson from whom spring the O'Meehans, 
O'Hehirs, and the Mac Davids of Thomond. The thirty- 
seventh, Fiachaidh, was well known in Irish romance ; the 
thirty-eighth was Eoghan, or Owen Mor, from whom all the 
septs of the Eoghanachts, or Eugenians of Munster come, who 
embrace every family and sept hitherto mentioned, and many 
more. They are carefully to be distinguished from the Dal- 
cassians, who are descended from Owen's second son Cas. It 
was the Dalcassians who, with Brian Boru at their head, pre- 
served Ireland from the Danes and won Clontarf. For many 
centuries the history of Munster is largely composed of the 
struggles between these two septs for the kingship. The thirty- 
ninth is the celebrated Oilioll [Ulyul] Olum, king of Mun- 
ster, whose wail of grief over his son Owen is a stock piece in 
Irish MSS. He is a son of the great Owen, better known as 
Mogh Nuadhat, or Owen the Splendid, who wrested half the 

1 The great Daniel O'Connell's mother belonged to this sept of the 
O'Mullanes, and the so-called typical Hibernian physiognomy of the 
Liberator was derived from her people, whom he nearly resembled, and 
not from the O'Connells. 



TOPOGRAPHY AND GENEALOGY 63 

kingdom from Conn of the Hundred Battles, so that to this 
very day Connacht and Ulster together are called in Irish 
Conn's Half, and Munster and Leinster Owen's Half. The 
forty-third ancestor is Dergthini, who is known in Irish history 
as one of the three heirs of the royal houses in Ireland, whom 
I have mentioned before as having been saved from massacre 
when the Free Clans or Nobility were cut to pieces by the 
Unfree or Rent-paying tribes at Moy Cro — an event which is 
nearly contemporaneous with the birth of Christ. Hitherto 
there have been nine kings of Munster in this line, but not a 
single king of Ireland, but the forty-ninth ancestor, Duach 
Dalta Degadh, also called Duach Donn, attains this high 
honour, and takes his place among the Reges Hiberniae about 
172 years before Christ, according to the "Four Masters." After 
this a rather bald catalogue of thirty-six more ancestors are 
reckoned, no fewer than twenty-four being counted among the 
kings of Ireland, and at last, at the eighty-sixth ancestor from 
the Earl of Clancarthy, the genealogy finds its long-delayed 
goal in Eber, son of Milesius. 

It will be seen from this typical pedigree of the Mac Carthys 
— any other great family would have answered our purpose just 
as well — how families spring from clans and clans from septs — to 
use an English word — and septs from a common stem ; and how 
the nearness or remoteness of some common ancestor bound a 
number of clans in nearer or remoter alliance to one another. 
Thus all septs of the great Eberian stem had some slight and 
faint tie of common ancestry connecting them, which comes 
out most strongly in their jealousy of the Eremonian or northern 
stem, but was not sufficient to produce a political alliance 
amongst themselves. Of a much stronger nature was the tie 
which bound those families descended from Eoghan Mor, the 
thirty-eighth ancestor from the first earl. These went under the 
name of the Eoghanachts, and held fairly together, always 
opposing the Dalcassians, descended from Cas. But when it 
came to the adoption of a surname, as it did in the eleventh 



64 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

century, those who descended from the ancestor who gave them 
their name, were bound to one another by the common ties or 
a nearer kinship and a common surname. 

It will be seen at a glance from the above pedigree, how, 
talcing the Mac Carthys as a stem, and starting from the first 
earl, the Mac Finneens join that stem at the eleventh ancestor 
from the earl, the Mac Auliffes at the fifteenth, the O'Calla- 
ghans at the eighteenth, the O'Sullivans at the twenty-ninth, 
the O'Keefes at the thirty-second, the O'Dalys x of Munster 
at the thirty-second, the O'Donoghues, O'Mahonys, 
O'Mullanes, O'Cronins, O'Garvans, and Moriartys at the 
thirty-fourth, the O'Donovans, Collinses, O'Meehans, 
O'Hehirs, and Mac Davids at the thirty-sixth. 

Now each of these had his own genealogy equally carefully 
kept by his own ancestral bardic historian. If, for instance, 
the Mac Carthys could boast of nine kings of Munster amongst 
them, the O'Keefes could boast of ten ; and an O'Keefe 
reckoning from Donal Og, who was slain at the battle of 
Aughrim, would say that the Mac Carthys joined his line at 
the thirty-sixth ancestor from Donal. 

All the Gaels of Ireland of the free tribes trace back their 
ancestry, as we have seen, to one or other of the four great 
stocks of Erimon, Eber, Ir, and Ith. Of these the Ere- 
monians were by far the greatest, the Eberians coming next. 
The O'Neills, O'Donnells, O'Conors, O'Cavanaghs, and 
almost all the leading families of the north, the west, and the 
east were Erimonian ; the O'Briens, Mac Carthys, and most 
of the leading tribes of the south were Eberians. 2 It was 

1 Not to be confounded with the Siol nDalaigh, who were the great 
northern family of the O'Donnells, who had also an ancestor called Dalach, 
from whom they derived, not their surname, but their race-patronymic. 

2 Strange to say Daniel O'Connell was not an Eberian but an Erimonian. 
The history of his tribe is very curious. It was descended from the cele- 
brated Ernaan, or Degadian tribe to which the hero Curigh Mac Daire slain 
by Cuchulain belonged, who trace their genealogy back to Aengus 
Tuirmeach, High-king of Ireland about 388 B.C. These tribes were of 
Erimonian descent, but settled in the south. They were quite conquered. 



TOPOGRAPHY AND GENEALOGY 65 

nearly always a member of one or the other of these two stems 
who held the high-kingship of Ireland, but so much more 
powerful were the Eremonians within historical times, that the 
Southern Eberians, although well able to maintain themselves 
in the south, yet found themselves absolutely unable to place 
more than one or two I high-kings upon the throne of All- 
Ireland, from the coming of Patrick, until the great Brian Boru 
once more broke the spell and wrested the monarchy from the 
Erimonians. The Irians gave few kings to Ireland, and the 
Ithians still less — only three or four, and these in very early, 
perhaps mythic, times. 

If now we trace the O'Neill pedigree back as we did that of 
the Mac Carthys, we find the great Shane O'Neill who fought 
Elizabeth, traced back step by step to the perfectly historical 
character Niall of the Nine Hostages, son of Eochaidh 
Muigh-mheadhoin [Mwee-va-on], who was grandson of 
Fiachaidh Sreabhtine [Sravtinna], son of Cairbre of the Liffey, 
son of the great Cormac Mac Art, and grandson or Conn of the 
Hundred Battles, all of whom are celebrated in history and end- 
less romance ; and thence through a list containing in all forty- 
four High-kings of Ireland back to Eremon, son of Milesius, 
brother of that Eber from whom the Mac Carthys spring, and 
from whom he is the eighty-eighth in descent. The O'Donnells 
join his line at the thirty-sixth ancestor, the O'Gallaghers at 
the thirty-second, the O'Conor Don and O'Conor Roe and the 
O'Flaherty at the thirty-seventh. We find too, on examining 
these pedigrees, the most curious- inter-mixtures and crossing 
of families. Thus, for instance, the two families of O'Crowley 

by the descendants of Oilioll Olum — i.e., the Eberians, who owned nearly 
all the south — yet they continued to exist in the extreme west of Minister. 
The O'Connells, from whom came Daniel O'Connell, the O'Falveys and 
the O'Sheas were their chief families, but none of them were powerful. 

1 The Minister annals of Innisfallen themselves claim only five, but the 
claims of some of them are untenable. Moore will not admit thai any 
Eberian was monarch of Ireland from the coming of St. Patrick to the 
"usurpation" of Brian Boru. 

E 



66 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

in Minister spring from the Mac Dermot Roe of Connacht, 
who, with the Mac Donogh, sprang from Mac Dermot of 
Moylurg in Roscommon, ancestor of the prince of Coolavin ; 
while the O'Gara, former lord of Coolavin in the same county, 
to whom the " Four Masters " dedicated their annals, was of 
southern Eberian stock. 

The great warriors of the Red Branch, the men of the 
original kingdom of Uladh [Ulla, i.e., Ulster], were of the 
third great stock, the Irians or race of Ir, 1 but they are 
perhaps better known as the Clanna Rudhraighe [Rury] or 
Rudricians, so named from Rudhraighe, a. great monarch of 
Ireland who lived nearly three hundred years before Christ, or 
as Ulidians because they represented the ancient province of 
Uladh. But the Three Collas, grandsons of Cairbre of the 
Liffey, who was himself great-grandson of Conn of the Hundred 
Battles, and of course of the Eremonian stock, overthrew the 
Irians in the year 332, and burned their capital, Emania. The 
Irians were thus driven out by the Eremonians, and forced back 
into the present counties of Down and Antrim, where they 
continued to maintain their independence. So bitterly, how- 
ever, did they resent the treatment they had received at the 
hands of the Eremonians, and so deeply did the burning of 
Emania continue to rankle in their hearts, that after a period of 
nearly 900 years they are said to have stood sullenly aloof from 
the other Irish, and to have refused to make common cause 
with them against the Normans at the battle of Downpatrick 
in 1260, where the prince of the O'Neills was slain. 2 So 
powerful, on the other hand, did the idea of race-connection 
remain, that we find one of the bards so late as the sixteenth 

1 Their greatest families were in later times the Magennises, now Guin- 
nesses, O'Mores, O'Farrells, and O'Connor Kerrys, with their correlatives. 

2 O'Donovan says that Brian O'Neill was not assisted by any of the 
Ulidians at this battle, but of course they had more recent wrongs than the 
burning of Emania to complain of, for battles between them and the^ 
invading Eremonian tribes continued for long to be recorded in the 
annals. Sec p. 180, " Miscellany of the Celtic Society." 



TOPOGRAPHY AND GENEALOGY 67 

century urging a political combination and alliance between 
the descendants of the Three Collas who had burned E mania 
over twelve hundred years before, and who were then repre- 
sented by the Maguires of Fermanagh, the Mac Mahons of 
Oriel x and the far-off O'Keliys of Ui Maine 2 [Ee maana]. 

As for the fourth great stock, the Ithians,3 they were 
gradually pushed aside by the Eberians of the south, as the 
Irians had been by the Eremonians of the north, and driven 
into the islands and coasts of West Munster. Yet curiously 
enough the northern Dukes of Argyle and the Campbells and 
MacAllans of Scotland spring from them. Their chief tribes 
in Ireland were known as the Corca Laidhi [Corka-lee] ; these 
were the pirate O'Driscolls and their correlatives, but they 
were pushed so hard by the Mac Carthys, O'Mahonys, and 
other Eberians, that in the year 161 5 their territory was con- 
fined to a few parishes, and twenty years later even these are 
found paying tribute to the Mac Carthy Reagh. There is one 
very remarkable peculiarity about their genealogies, which is, 
that, though they trace themselves with great apparent, and no 
doubt real, accuracy back to Mac Con, monarch of Ireland and 
contemporary with Oilioll Olum in the end of the second 
century, yet from that point back to Milesius a great number 
of generations (some twenty or so) are missing, and no genea- 
logist, so far as I know, in any of the books of pedigrees which 
I have consulted, has attempted to supply them by filling them 
up with a barren list of names, as has been done in the other 
three stems.4 

1 I.e. Monaghan. 2 Parts of the counties Gahvay and Roscommon. 

3 In later times their chief families were the O'Driscolls, the Clancys 
[Mac Fhlanchadhas] of the county Leitrim, the MacAllans of Scotland, the 
Coffeys and the O'Learys of Roscarberry, etc. They were commonly 
called the Clanna Breogain, or Irish Brigantes, from Breogan, father of Ith. 

4 From Mac Con, son of Maicniad, king of Ireland, to the end of the 
second century, Mac Firbis's great book of genealogies only reckons twelve 
generations of Breogan, but in the smaller handwriting at the foot of the 
page twenty-two generations are counted up. See under the heading, "Do 
genealach Dairfhine agus shil Luighdheach mic Iotha Mac Breoghain," at 
p. 670 of O'Curry's MS. transcript. Michael O'Clery's great hook of 



6S LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Let us now consider how far these genealogies tend to 
establish the authenticity of our early history, saga, and litera- 
ture. The first plain and obvious objection to them is this — 
that genealogies which trace themselves back to Adam must 
be untrue inventions. 

We grant it. 

But all Gaelic genealogies meet, as we have shown in 
Milesius or his uncle, Ith. Strike off all that long tale or 
pre-Milesian names connecting him with Adam, and count 
them as a late excrescence — a mixture of pagan myth and 
Christian invention added to the rest for show. This leaves 
us only the four stems to deal with. 

The next objection is that pedigrees which trace themselves 
back to the landing of the Milesians — a date in the computation 
of which Irish annalists themselves differ by a few hundred 
years — must also be untrue, especially as their own annalist, 
Tighearnach, has expressly said that all their history prior 
to about 300 B.C. is uncertain. 

We grant this also. 

What, then, remains ? 

This remains— namely the points in each of the four great 
race stems, in which all or the most of the leading tribes and 
families belonging to that stem converge, and, as we have seen, 
all of these with a few exceptions take place within reach of 
the historical period. In the lines of Eber and of Ith, this 
point is at the close of the second century ; in the race of Ir 
it is about the time of Christ's birth, 1 and in the fourth and 

genealogies counts twenty-three generations from Maic Niad to Ith, both 
included, see p. 223 of O'Clery's MS. Keating's pedigree, as given in 
the body of his history, gives twenty-three generations also, but only 
seventeen in the special genealogy attached to it. There are no such 
curious discrepancies in the other three stems. I can only account for it 
by the impoverished and oppressed condition of the Ithians, which in later 
times may have made them lose their records. 

1 The chief exceptions being, as we have seen, the Scottish Dal Riada 
and the Leinster O'Cavanaghs, who do not join the Eremonian line, orte 
till the fourth and the other till the seventh century before Christ. 



TOPOGRAPHY AND GENEALOGY 69 

perhaps most important stem, that of Eremon, the two main 
points of convergence are in the historical Niall of the Nine 
Hostages, who came to the throne in 356, and in Cairbre of 
the Liffey, who became High-king in 267. x 

1 Conall Cearnach, from whom, along with his friend Fergus mac Roigh 
or Roy, the Irians claim descent, was fin t cousin of Cuchulain, and 
Tighearnach records Cuchulain's death as occurring in the second year 
after the birth of Christ, the " Chronicon Scotorum " having this curious 
entry at the year 432, " a morte Concculaind herois usque ad hunc annum 
431, a morte Concupair [Conor] mic Nessa 412 anni sunt." It is worth 
noting that none of the Gaelic families trace their pedigree, so far as I 
know, to either Cuchulain himself, or to his over-lord, King Conor mac 
Nessa. Cuchulain was himself not of Ithian but of Eremonian blood, 
although so closely connected with Ernania, the Red Branch, and the 
Clanna Rury. If Irish pedigrees had been like modern ones for sale, or 
could in any way have been tampered with, every one would have pre- 
ferred Cuchulain for an ancestor. That no one has got him is a strong 
presumption in favour of the genuineness of Irish genealogies. 



CHAPTER VII 



DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE 



We must now consider whether Irish genealogies were really 
traced or not to those points which I have mentioned. Is 
there any documentary evidence in support of such an asser- 
tion ? 

There is certainly some such evidence, and we shall proceed 
to examine it. 

In the Leabhar na h-Uidhre [Lowar na Heera], or Book of 
the Dun Cow, the existing manuscript of which was trans- 
cribed about the year noo, in the Book of Leinster, transcribed 
about fifty years later, in the Book of Ballymote and in the 
Book of Lecan,. frequent reference is made to an ancient book 
now lost called the Cin or Codex of Drom-sneachta. This 
book, or a copy of it, existed down to the beginning of the 
seventeenth century, for Keating quotes from it in his history, 
and remarks at the same time, " and it was before the coming 
of Patrick to Ireland the author of that book existed." * This 
evidence of Keating might be brushed aside as an exaggeration 
did it stand alone, but it does not, for in a partially effaced 
memorandum in the Book of Leinster, transcribed from older 
books about the year 1150, we read: " [Ernin, son of] 

1 See Haliday's " Keating," p. 215. 
70 



DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE yi 

Duach, 1 son of the king of Connacht, an ollav and a 
prophet and a professor in history and a professor in wisdom ; 
it was he that collected the genealogies and histories of the 
men of Erin into one, and that is the Cin Droma-sneachta." 
Now there were only two Duachs according to our annals, 
one of these was great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, 
and of course a pagan, who died in 379 ; the other, who was 
an ancestor of the O'Flaherties, died one hundred and twenty 
years later. It was Duach the pagan, whose second son was 
Ernin ; the other had only one son, whose name was Senach. 
If O 'Curry has read the half-effaced word correctly, then the 
book may have been, as Keating says it was, written before 
St. Patrick's coming, and it contained, as the various references 
to it show, a repertoire of genealogies collected by the son of a 
man who died in 379 ; this man, too, being great-grandson ot 
that Niall of the Nine Hostages in whose son so large a 
number of the Eremonian genealogies converge. 2 

There are many considerations which lead me to believe 
that Irish genealogical books were kept from the earliest intro- 
duction of the art of writing, and kept with greater accuracy, 
perhaps, than any other records of the past whatsoever. The 
chiefest of these is the well-known fact that, under the tribal 
system, no one possessed lawfully any portion of the soil in- 
habited by his tribe if he were not of the same race with his 
chief. Consequently even those of lowest rank in the tribe 
traced and recorded their pedigree with as much care as did 
the highest, for " it was from his own genealogy each man of 
the tribe, poor as well as rich, held the charter of his civil 
state, his right of property in the cantred in which he was 

1 See p. 15 of O'Curry's MS. Materials. There was sonic doubt in 
his mind about the words in brackets, but as the sheets of his book were 
passing through the press he took out the MS. for another look on a par- 
ticularly bright day, the result of which left him no doubt that he had re. id 
the name correctly. 

- For a typical citation of this book see p. 28 of O'Donovan's " Geneali igy 
of the Corca Laidh," in the " Miscellany of the Celtic Society." 



/ * 



2 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 



born." * All these genealogies were entered in the local books 
of each tribe and were preserved in the verses of the hereditary 
poets. There was no incentive to action among the early 
Irish so stimulative as a remembrance of their pedigree. It 
was the same among the Welsh, and probably among all tribes 
of Celtic blood. We find the witty but unscrupulous Giraldus, 
in the twelfth century, saying of his Welsh countrymen that 
every one of them, even of the common people, observes the 
genealogy of his race, and not only knows by heart his grand- 
fathers and great-grandfathers, but knows all his ancestors 
up to the sixth or seventh generation, 2 or even still further, 
and promptly repeats his genealogy as Rhys, son of Griffith, 
son of Rhys, son of Teudor, etc. 3 

The poet, Cuan O'Lochain, who died in the year 1024, 
gives a long account of the Saltair of Tara now lost, the com- 
pilation of which he ascribes to Cormac mac Art, who came 
to the throne in 227,4 and in which he says the synchronisms 
and chronology of all the kings were written. The Book of 
Ballymote too quotes from an ancient book, now lost, called 
the Book of the Uachongbhail, to the effect that " the syn- 
chronisms and genealogies and succession of their kings and 
monarchs, their battles, their contests, and their antiquities 



1 See "Celtic Miscellany," p. 144, O'Donovan's tract on Corca Laidh. 

2 " Generositatem vero et generis nobilitatem prae rebus omnibus magis 
appetunt. Unde et generosa conjugia plus longe capiunt quam sumptuosa 
vel opima. Genealogiam quoque generis sui etiam de populo quilibet 
observat, et non solum, avos, atavos, sed usque ad sextam vel septimam et 
ultra procul generationem, memoriter et prompte genus enarrat in hunc 
modum Resus films Griffini filii Resi filii Theodori, filii Aeneas, filii Hoeli 
filii Cadelli filii Roderici magni et sic deinceps. 

"Genus itaque super omnia diligunt, et damna sanguinis atque dedecoris 
ulciscuntur. Vindicis enim animi sunt et irae cruentae nee solum novas 
et recentes injurias verum etiam veteres et antiquas velut instanter vindicare 
parati " (" Cambriae Descriptio," Cap. XVII.). 

3 O'Donovan says — I forget where— that he had tested in every part of 
Ireland how far the popular memory cpuld carry back its ancestors, aTid 
found that it did not reach beyond the seventh generation. 

* According to the " Four Masters " ; in 213, according to Keating. 



DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE 73 

from the world's beginning down to that time were written in 
it, and this is the Saltair of Tara, which is the origin and 
fountain of the historians of Erin from that period down to 
this time." This may not be convincing proof that Cormac 
mac Art wrote the Saltair, but it is convincing proof that 
what were counted as the very earliest books were filled with 
genealogies. 

The subject of tribal genealogy upon which the whole 
social fabric depended was far too important to be left without 
a check in the hands of tribal historians, however well- 
intentioned. And this check was afforded by the great 
convention or Feis, which took place triennially at Tara, 1 
whither the historians had to bring their books that under 
the scrutiny of the jealous eyes of rivals they might be purged 
of whatever could not be substantiated, "and neither law nor 
usage nor historic record was ever held as genuine until it had 
received such approval, and nothing that disagreed with the 
Roll of Tara could be respected as truth." 2 

"It was," says Duald Mac Firbis3 — himself the author of 
probably the greatest book of genealogies ever written, speak- 
ing about the chief tribal historians of Ireland, " obligatory on 
every one of them who followed it to purify the profession " ; 
and he adds very significantly, " Along with these [historians] 
the judges of Banba [Ireland] used to be in like manner pre- 
serving the history, for a man could not be a judge without being 
a historian, and he is not a historian who is not a judge in the 
Brethadh Nimhedh,4 that is the last book in the study of 
the Shanachies and of the judges themselves." 

1 But see O'Donovan's introduction to " The Book of Rights," where he 
adduces some reasons for believing that it may have been a septennial not 
a triennial convocation. 

3 See Keating's History under the reign of Tuathal Teachtmhar. 

3 In the seventeenth century. His book on genealogies would, O'Curry 
computed, fill 1,300 pages of the size of O'Donovan's " Four Masters." 

4 This was a very ancient law book, which is quoted at least a dozen 
times ip Cormac's Glossary, made in the ninth or tenth century. 



74 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

The poets and historians cc were obliged to be free from 
theft, and killing, and satirising, and adultery, and everything 
that would be a reproach to their learning." Mac Firbis, who 
was the last working historian of a great professional family, 
puts the matter nobly and well. 

"Any Shanachie," he says, "whether an ollav or the next in rank, 
or belonging to the order at all, who did not preserve these rules, 
lost half his income and his dignity according to law, and was 
subject to heavy penalties besides, so that it is not to be supposed *J 
that there is in the world a person who would not prefer to tell the 
truth, if he had no other reason than the fear of God and the loss of 
his dignity and his income : and it is not becoming to charge 
partiality upon these elected historians [of the nation]. However, if 
unworthy people did write falsehood, and attributed it to a historian, 
it might become a reproach to the order of historians if they were \ 
not on their guard, and did not look to see whether it was out of 
their prime books of authority that those writers obtained their , 
knowledge. And that is what should be done by every one, both by I 
the lay scholar and the professional historian — everything of which j 
they have a suspicion, to look for it, and if they do not find it con- 
firmed in good books, to note down its doubtfulness, 1 along with it, I 
as I myself do to certain races hereafter in this book, and it is thus 
that the historians are freed from the errors of others, should these 
errors be attributed to them, which God forbid." 

I consider it next to impossible for any Gaelic pedigree to 
have been materially tampered with from the introduction of 
the art of writing, because tribal jealousies alone would have 
prevented it, and because each stem of the four races was j 
connected at some point with every other stem, the whole 
elan system being inextricably intertwined, and it was neces- 
sary for all the various tribal genealogies to agree, in order that 
each branch, sub-branch, and family might fit, each in its own 
place. 

I have little doubt that the genealogy of O'Neill, for i 
instance, which traces him back to the father of Niall of the 

1 Thus quaintly expressed in the original, for which see O'Curry's 
MS. Materials, p. 576 : " muna ffaghuid dearbhtha iar ndeghleabhraibh j 
e, a chuntabhairt fen do chur re a chois." 



DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE 75 

Nine Hostages who came to the throne in 356 is substantially 
correct. Niall, it must be remembered, was father of Lao- 
ghaire [Leary], who was king when St. Patrick arrived, by 
which time, if not before, the art of writing was known in 
Ireland. A fortiori, then, we may trust the pedigrees of the 
O'Donnells and the rest who join that stem a little later on. 
If this be acknowledged we may make a cautious step or two 
backwards. No one, so far as I know, has much hesitation in 
acknowledging the historic character of that King Laoghaire 
whom St. Patrick confronted, nor of his father Niall of the 
Nine Hostages. But if we go so far, it wants very little to 
bring us in among the Fenians themselves, and the scenes con- 
nected with them and with Conn of the Hundred Battles ; for 
Niall's great-grandfather was that Fiachaidh who was slain 
by the Three Collas — those who burnt Emania and destroyed 
the Red Branch — and his father is Cairbre of the Liffey, who 
overthrew the Fenians, and his father again is the great Cormac 
son of Art, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles who divided 
the kingdom with Owen Mor. But it is from the three 
grandsons of this Owen Mor the Eberians come, and from 
their half-brother come the Ithians, so that up to this point 
I think Irish genealogies may be in the main accepted. Even 
the O'Kavanaghs and their other correlations, who do not join 
the stem of Eremon till between 500 or 600 years before 
Christ, yet pass through Enna Cennsalach, king of Leinster, 
a perfectly historical character mentioned several times in the 
Book of Armagh, 1 who slew the father of Niall of the Nine 
Hostages ; and I believe that, however we may account for the 
strange fact that these septs join the Eremonian stem so many 
hundreds of years before the O'Neills and the others, that up 
to this point their genealogy too may be trusted. 

1 See pp. 102, 113 of Father Hogan's " Documenta de S. Patricio ex 
Libro Armachano," where he is called Endae. He persecuted Cuthbad's 
three sons, " fosocart endae cennsalach fubithin creitme riacach," but 
P.itrick is said to have baptized his son, " Luid iarsuidiu cucrimthan 
maccnendi ceinnselich et ipse creditit." 



;6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

If this is the case, and if it is true that every Gael belonging 
to the Free Clans of Ireland could trace his pedigree with 
accuracy back to the fourth, third, or even second century, it 
affords a strong support to Irish history, and in my opinion 
considerably heightens the credibility of our early annals, and 
renders the probability that Finn mac Cool and the Red 
Branch heroes were real flesh and blood, enormously greater 
than before. It will also put us on our guard against quite 
accepting such sweeping generalisations as those of Skene, 
when he says that the entire legendary history of Ireland 
prior to the establishment of Christianity in the fifth century 
partakes largely of a purely artificial character. We must not 
forget that while no Irish genealogy is traced to the De Danann 
tribes, who were undoubtedly gods, yet the ancestor of the 
Dalcassians — Cormac Cas, Oilioll Olum's son — is said to have 
married Ossian's daughter. 



CHAPTER VIII 

CONFUSION BETWEEN GODS AND MEN 

Of that part of every Irish pedigree which runs back from the 
first century to Milesius nothing can be laid down with 
certainty, nor indeed can there be any absolute certainty in 
affirming that Irish pedigrees from the eleventh to the third 
century are reliable — we have only an amount of cumulative 
evidence from which we may draw such a deduction with 
considerable confidence. The mere fact that these pedigrees 
are traced back a thousand years further through Irish kings 
and heroes, and end in a son of Milesius, need not in the 
least afFect — as in popular estimation it too often does — the 
credibility of the last seventeen hundred years, which stands 
upon its own merits. 

On the contrary, such a continuation is just what we should 
expect. In the Irish genealogies the sons of Milesius occupy 
the place that in other early genealogies is held by the gods. 
And the sons of Milesius were possibly the tutelary gods of 
the Gael. We have seen how one of them was so, at least 
in folk belief, and was addressed in semi-seriousness as still 
living: and reigning even in the last ccnturv. 

All the Germanic races looked upon themselves as descended 

from gods. The Saxon, Anglian, Danish, Norwegian, and 

w 77 



;8 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Swedish kings were traced back either to Woden or to some 
of his companions or sons. 1 It was the same with the Greeks, 
to whom the Celts bear so close a similitude. Their Hera- 
kleids, Asklepiads, iEakids, Neleids, and Daedalids, are a close 
counterpart to our Eremonians, Eberians, Ithians, and Irians, 
and in each case all the importance was attached to the 
primitive eponymous hero or god from whom they sprang. 
Without him the whole pedigree became uninteresting, un- 
finished, headless. These beliefs exercised full power even 
upon the ablest and most cultured Greeks. Aristotle and 
Hippocrates, for instance, considered themselves descended from 
Asklepius, Thucidydes from iEakus, and Socrates from 
Daedalus ; just as O'Neill and O'Donnell did from Eremon, 
O'Brien from Eber, and Magennis from Ir. It was to the 
divine or heroic fountain heads of the race, not so much as to 
the long and mostly barren list of names which led up to it, 
that the real importance was attached. It is not in Ireland 
alone that we see mythology condensing into a dated 
genealogy. The same thing has happened in Persian history, 
and the history of Denmark by Saxo Grammaticus affords 
many such instances. In Greece the Neleid family of Pylus 
traced their origin to Neptune, the Lacedaemonian kings traced 
theirs to Cadmus and Danaiis, and Hekataeus of Miletus was 
the fifteenth descendant of a god. 

Again we meet with in Teutonic and Hellenic mythology 
the same difficulty that meets us in our own — that of distin- 
guishing gods from heroes and heroes from men. The legends 
of the Dagda and of Angus of the Boyne and the Tuatha 
De Danann, of Tighearnmas and the Fomorians, of Lugh the 
Long-handed and the children of Tuireann — all evidently 
mythologic — were treated in the same manner, recited by the 
same tongues, and regarded with the same unwavering belief, 
as the history of Conor mac Nessa and Deirdre, of Cuchulain 

1 These genealogies were in later times, like the Irish ones, extended to 
Noah. 



CONFUSION BETWEEN GODS AND MEN 79 

and Meve, or that of Conn of the Hundred Battles, Owen 
Mor, Finn mac Cool, and the Fenians. The early Greek, 
in the same way, treated the stories of Apollo and Artemis, of 
Ares and Aphrodite, just as he did those of Diomede and 
Helen, Meleager and Althaea, Achilles, or the voyage of the 
Argo. All were in a primitive and uncritical age received 
with the same unsuspicious credulity, and there was no hard- 
and-fast line drawn between gods and men. Just as the Mor- 
rfgan, the war-goddess, has her eye dashed out by Cuchulain, 
so do we find in Homer gods wounded by heroes. Thus, too, 
Apollo is condemned to serve Admetus, and Hercules is sold 
as a slave to Omphale. Herodotus himself confesses that he 
is unable to determine whether a certain Thracian god 
Zalmoxis, was a god or a man, 1 and he finds the same difficulty 
regarding Dionysus and Pan ; while Plutarch refuses to deter- 
mine whether Janus was a god or a king; 2 and Herakleitus 
the philosopher, confronted by the same difficulty, made the 
admirable mot that men were " mortal gods," gods were " im- 
mortal men." 3 

In our literature, although the fact does not always appear 
distinctly, the Dagda, Angus Og, Lugh the Long-handed, 
Ogma, and their fellows are the equivalents of the immortal 
gods, while certainly Cuchulain and Conor and probably 
Curigh Mac Daire, Conall Cearnach, and the other famous 
Red Branch chiefs, whatever they may have been in reality, 
are the equivalent of the Homeric heroes, that is to say, 
believed to have been epigoni of the gods, and therefore greater 



1 Herod, iv. 94-96. 2 Numa, ch. xix. 

3 " Beoi OinjToi," " avOpioTroi dQuvaroi." It is most curious to find this so 
academic question dragged into the hard light of day and subjected to the 
scrutiny of so prosaic a person as the Roman tax-collector. Under the 
Roman Empire all lands in Greece belonging to the immortal gods were 
exempted from tribute, and the Roman tax-collector refused to recognise 
as immortal gods any deities who had once been men. The confusion 
arising from such questions offered an admirable target to Lucian for his 
I keenest shafts of ridicule. 



8o LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

than ordinary human beings ; while just as in Greek story- 
there are the cycles of the war round Thebes, the voyage of 
the ArgOy the fate of CEdipus, etc., so we have in Irish 
numerous smaller groups of epic stories — now unfortunately 
mostly lost or preserved in digests — which, leaving out the 
Cuchulain and Fenian cycles, centre round such minor cha- 
racters as Macha, who founded Emania, Leary Lore, Labhraidh 
[Lowry] the Mariner, and others. 

That the Irish gods die in both saga and annals like so many 
human beings, in no wise militates against the supposition of 
their godhead. Even the Greek did not always consider his gods 
as eternal. A study of comparative mythology teaches that gods 
are in their original essence magnified men, and subject to all 
men's changes and chances. They are begotten and born 
like men. They eat, sleep, feel sickness, sorrow, pain, like 
men. " Like men," says Grimm, " they speak a language, 
feel passions, transact affairs, are clothed and armed, possess 
dwellings and utensils." Being man-like in these things, they 
are also man-like in their deaths. They are only on a greater 
scale than we. "This appears to me," says Grimm, 1 "a 
fundamental feature in the faith of the heathen, that they 
allowed to their gods not an unlimited and unconditional 
duration, but only a term of life far exceeding that of man." 
As their shape is like the shape of man only vaster, so are 
their lives like the lives of men only indefinitely longer. "With 
our ancestors [the Teutons]," said Grimm, "the thought of 
the gods being immortal retires into the background. The 
Edda never calls them 'eylifir' or c odau^ligir,' and their 
death is spoken of without disguise." So is it with us also. 
The Dagda dies, slain in the battle of North Moytura ; the 
three " gods of the De Danann " die at the instigation or 
Lugh ; and the great Lugh himself, from whom Lugdunum, 
now Lyons, takes its name, and to whom early Celtic 
inscriptions are found, shares the same fate. Manannan is 
1 " Deutsche Mythologie," article on the Condition of the Gods. 



CONFUSION BETWEEN GODS AND MEN Si 

slain, so is Ogma, and so are many more. And yet though 
recorded as slain they do not wholly disappear. Manannan 
came back to Bran riding in his chariot across the Ocean, 1 
and Lugh makes his frequent appearances amongst the 
living. 

1 " Voyage of Bran mac Febail,'' Nutt and Kuno Meyer, vol. i. p. 16. 



CHAPTER IX 



DRUIDISM 



Although Irish literature is full of allusions to the druids it 
is extremely difficult to know with any exactness what they 
were. They are mentioned from the earliest times. The pre- 
Milesian races, the Nemedians and Fomorians, had their 
druids, who worked mutual spells against each other. The 
Tuatha De Danann had innumerable druids amongst them, 
who used magic. The invading Milesians had three druids 
with them in their ships, Amergin the poet and two others. 
In fact, druids are mentioned in connection with all early 
Irish fiction and history, from the first colonising of Ireland 
down to the time of the saints. It seems very doubtful, 
however, whether there existed in Ireland as definitely estab- 
lished an order of druids as in Britain and on the Continent. 1 

1 Caesar's words are worth repeating. He says that there were two 
sorts of men in Gaul both numerous and honoured — the knights and the 
Druids, " equites et druides," because the people counted for nothing and 
took the initiative in nothing. As for the Druids, he says : " Rebus divinis 
intersunt, sacrificia publica et privata procurant, religiones interpretantur. 
. . . nam fere de omnibus controversiis publicis privatisque constituunt, 
et si quod est admissum facinus, si ccedes facta, si de hereditate, de finibus 
controversia est iidem decernunt praemia, pcenasque constituunt." All 
this seems very like the duties of the Irish Druids, but not what follows : 
" si qui, aut privatus aut populus eorum decreto non stetit, sacrinciis inter- 
82 



DRUID ISM 83 

They are frequently mentioned in Irish literature as ambas- 
sadors, spokesmen, teachers, and tutors. Kings were sometimes 
druids, so were poets. It is a word which seems to me to have 
been, perhaps from the first, used with great laxity and great lati- 
tude. The druids, so far as we can ascertain, do not seem to be 
connected with any positive rites or worship ; still less do they 
appear to have been a regular priesthood, and there is not a 
shadow of evidence to connect them with any special worship 
as that of the sun or of fire. In the oldest saga-cycle the 
druid appears as a man of the highest rank and related to 
kings. King Conor's father was according to some — pro- 
bably the oldest — accounts a druid ; so was Finn mac Cool's 
grandfather. 

Before the coming of St. Patrick there certainly existed 
images, or, as they are called by the ancient authorities, 
" idols " in Ireland, at which or to which sacrifice used to be 
offered, probably with a view to propitiating the earth-gods, 
possibly the Tuatha De Danann, and securing good harvests 
and abundant kine. From sacrificial rites spring, almost of 
necessity, a sacrificial caste, and this caste — the druids — had 
arrived at a high state of organisation in Gaul and Britain 
when observed by Caesar, and did not hesitate to sacrifice whole 
hecatombs of human beings. " They think," said Caesar, 
"that unless a man's life is rendered up for a man's life, the 
will of the immortal God cannot be satisfied, and they have 
sacrifices of this kind as a national institution." 

There appears nothing, however, that I am aware of, to 
connect the druids in Ireland with human sacrifice, although 
such sacrifice appears to have been offered. The druids, how- 
ever, appear to have had private idols of their own. We find 
a very minute account in the tenth-century glossary of King 
Cormac as to how a poet performed incantations with his 

dicunt. Htcc poena apud eos est gravissima." Nor do the Irish appear 
to have had the over-Druid whom Caesar talks of. (Sec " De Bello Gallico," 
book vi. chaps. 13, 14). 



8 4 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

idols. The word " poet " is here apparently equivalent to 
druid, as the word " druid " like the Latin vates is frequently 
a synonym for " poet." Here is how the glossary explains the 
incantation called Imbas Forosnai : — 

"This," says the ancient lexicographer, "describes to the poet 
whatsoever thing he wishes to discover, 1 and this is the manner in 
which it is performed. The poet chews a bit of the raw red flesh 
of a pig, a dog, or a cat, and then retires with it to his own bed 
behind the door, 2 where he pronounces an oration over it and 
offers it to his idol gods. He then invokes the idols, and if he has not 
received the illumination before the next day, he pronounces incan- 
tations upon his two palms and takes his idol gods unto him [into 
his bed] in order that he may not be interrupted in his sleep. He 
then places his two hands upon his two cheeks and falls asleep. He 
is then watched so that he be not stirred nor interrupted by any one 
until everything that he seeks be revealed to him at the end of a 
tiomad, 3 or two or three, or as long as he continues at his offering, 
and hence it is that this ceremony is called Imbas, that is, the two 
hands upon him crosswise, that is, a hand over and a hand hither 
upon his cheeks. And St. Patrick prohibited this ceremony, because 
it is a species of Teinm Laeghdha, 4 that is, he declared that any one 
who performed it should have no place in heaven or on earth." 

These were apparently the private images of the druid 
himself which are spoken of, but there certainly existed public 
idols in pagan Ireland before the evangelisation of the island. 
St. Patrick himself, in his " Confession," asserts that before his 
coming the Irish worshipped idols — idola et immunda — and we 
have preserved to us more than one account of the great gold- 
covered image which was set up in Moy Slaught 5 [i.e., the 

1 " Cach raet bid maith lasin filid agus bud adla(i)c do do fhaillsiugad." 
a Thus O'Curry (" Miscellany of the Celtic Society," vol. ii. p. 208) ; 
but Stokes translates, " he puts it then on the flagstone behind the door." 
See the original in Cormac's Glossary under " Hiix.bas." I have not 
O'Donovan's translation by me. 

3 O'Curry translates this by " day." It is at present curiously used, I sup- 
pose by a kind of confusion with the English " moment," in the sense of a 
minute or other short measure of time. At least I have often heard it so used. 

4 Another species of incantation mentioned in the glossary, 
s In Irish Magh Sleacht. 



DRUIDISM 85 

Plain of Adoration], believed to be in the present county of 
Cavan. It stood there surrounded by twelve lesser idols orna- 
mented with brass, and may possibly have been regarded as a 
sun-god ruling over the twelve seasons. It was called the 
Crom Cruach or Cenn Cruach, 1 and certain Irish tribes con- 
sidered it their special tutelary deity. The Dinnseanchas, or 
explanation of the name of Moy Slaught, calls it " the King 
Idol of Erin," " and around him were twelve idols made 
of stones, but he was of gold. Until Patrick's advent he was 
the god of every folk that colonised Ireland. To him they 
used to offer the firstlings of every issue and the chief scions 
of every clan ; " and the ancient poem in the Book of Leinster 
declares that it was " a high idol with many fights, which was 
named the Cromm Cruaich." 2 

The poem tells us that " the brave Gaels used to worship it, 
and would never ask from it satisfaction as to their portion of 
the hard world without paying it tribute." 



1 In O'Donovan's fragmentary manuscript catalogue of the Irish MSS., 
in Trinity College, Dublin, he writes apropos of the life of St. Maedhog or 
Mogue, contained in H. 2, 6 : "I searched the two Brefneys for the 
situation of Moy Sleacht on which stood the chief pagan Irish idol Crom 
Cruach, but have failed, being misled by Lanigan, who had been misled by 
Seward, who had been blinded by the impostor Beauford, who placed 
this plain in the county of Leitrim. It can, however, be proved from this 
life of St. Mogue that Magh Sleacht was that level part of the Barony of 
Tullaghan (in the county of Cavan) in which the island of Inis Breaghwee 
(now Mogue's Island), the church of Templeport, and the little village 
of Ballymagauran are situated." I have been told that O' Donovan 
afterwards found reason to doubt the correctness of this identifica- 
tion. 

2 M. de Jubainville connects the name with era (Latin, cruor), " blood," 
translating Ctnn Cruach by tete sanglante and Crom Cruach by Courbe 
sanglante, or Croissant ensanglantd ; but Rhys connects it with Cruach, 
"a reek" or "mound," as in Croagh-Patrick, St. Patrick's Reck. Cenn 
Cruach is evidently the same name as the Roman station Penno-Crucium, 
in the present county of Stafford, the Irish "c" being as usual the equivalent 
of the British " p." This would make it appear that Cromm was no local 
idol. Rhys thinks it got its name Crom Cruach, "the stooped one of the 
mound," from its bent attitude in the days of its decadence. 



$6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

" He was their God, 1 
The withered Cromm with many rmsts, 
The people whom he shook over every harbour, 
The everlasting kingdom they shall not have. 

To him without glory 

Would they kill thei? piteous wailing offspring, 

With much wailing and peril 

To pour their blood around Cromm Cruaich. 

Milk and corn 

They would ask from him speedily 

In return for one-third of their healthy issue, 

Great was the horror and scare of him. 

To him 

Noble Gaels would prostrate themselves, 

From the worship of him, with many manslaughters 

The Plain is called Moy Sleacht. 



In their ranks (stood) 

Four times three stone idols 

To bitterly beguile the hosts, 

The figure of Cromm was made of gold. 

Since the rule 

Of Heremon, 2 the noble man of grace, 

There was worshipping of stones 

Until the coming of good Patrick of Macha [Ardmagh]." 

There is not the slightest reason to distrust this evidence as 
far as the existence of Crom Cruach goes. 



1 Observe the exquisite and complicated metre of this in the original, 
a proof, I think, that the lines are not very ancient. It has been edited 
from the Book of Leinster, Book of Ballymote, Book of Lecan, and Rennes 
MS., at vol. i. p. 301 of Mr. Nutt's " Voyage of Bran," by Dr. Kuno Meyer — 

" Ba he a nDia 
In Cromm Crin co n-immud cia 
In lucht ro Craith 6s each Ciian 
In fiaithius Biian nochos Bia." 

2 I.e., Eremon or Erimon, Son of Milesius, see above, p. 59. ' 



DRUID ISM 87 

" This particular tradition," says Mr. Nutt, " like the majority of 
those contained in it [the Dinnseanchas] must be of pre-Christian 
origin. It would have been quite impossible for a Christian monk 
to have invented such a story, and we may accept it as a perfectly 
genuine bit of information respecting the ritual side of insular Celtic 
religion." l 

St. Patrick overthrew this idol, according both to the poem 
in the Book of Leinster and the early lives of the saint. 
The life says that when St. Patrick cursed Crom the ground 
opened and swallowed up the twelve lesser idols as far as their 
heads, which, as Rhys acutely observes, shows that when the 
early Irish lives of the saint were written the pagan sanctuary 
had so fallen into decay, that only the heads of the lesser idols 
remained above ground, while he thinks that it was at this 
time from its bent attitude and decayed appearance the idol 
was called Crom, " the Stooper." 2 There is, however, no 

1 The details of this idol, and, above all, the connection in which it stands 
to the mythic culture-king Tighearnmas, could not, as Mr. Nutt well 
remarks, have been invented by a Christian monk ; but nothing is more 
likely, it appears to me, than that such a one, familiar with the idol rites 
of Judaea from the Old Testament, may have added the embellishing trait 
of the sacrifice of " the firstlings of every issue." 

2 Sir Samuel Ferguson's admirable poem upon the death of Cormac 
refers to the priests of the idol, but there is no recorded evidence of any 
such priesthood — 

" Crom Cruach and his sub-gods twelve, 

Saith Cormac, are but carven treene, 

The axe that made them haft or helve, 

Had worthier of your worship been. 

But he who made the tree to grow, 

And hid in earth the iron stone, 
And made the man with mind to know 

The axe's use is God alone. 

Anon to priests of Crom were brought — 

Wlicre girded in their service drcid, 
They ministered in red Moy Slaught — 

Word of the words King Cormac said. 

They loosed their curse against the king, 
They cursed him in his flesh and bones, 

And daily in their mystic ring 

They turned the maledictive stones." 



S3 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

apparent or recorded connection between this idol and the 
druids, nor do the druids appear to have fulfilled the functions 
of a public priesthood in Ireland, and the Introduction to the 
Seanchas Mor, or ancient Book of the Brehon Laws, distinctly 
says that, " until Patrick came only three classes of persons 
were permitted to speak in public in Erin, a chronicler to 
relate events and to tell stories, a poet to eulogise and to 
satirise, and a Brehon to pass sentence from precedents and 
commentaries," thus noticeably omitting all mention of the 
druids as a public body. 

The idol Crom with his twelve subordinates may very well 
have represented the sun, upon whom both season and crops 
and consequently the life both of man and beast depend. The 
gods to whom the early Irish seem to have sacrificed, were no 
doubt, as I think Mr. Nutt has shown, agricultural powers, 
the lords of life and growth, and with these the sun, who is at 
the root of all growth, was intimately connected, u the object of 
that worship was to promote increase, the theory of worship was 
— life for life." * That the Irish swore by the sun and the moon 
and the elements is certain ; the oath is quoted in many places, 2 



D'Arcy McGee also refers to Crom Cruach in terms almost equally 
poetic, but equally unauthorised : — 

" Their ocean-god was Manannan Mac Lir, 

Whose angry lips 
In their white foam full often would inter 

Whole fleets of ships. 
Crom was their day-god and their thundcret, 

Made morning and eclipse ; 
Bride was their queen of song, and unto her 

They prayed with fire-touched lips ! " 

1 Nutt's " Voyage of Bran," vol. ii. p. 250. 

2 The elements are recorded as having slain King Laoghaire because he 
broke the oath he had made by them. In the Lament for Patrick Sarsficld 
as late as the seventeenth century, the unknown poet cries : 

" Go mbeannaigh' an ghealach gheal 's an ghrian duit, 
O thug tu an la as laimh Righ 'Liam leat." 

I.e., May the white Moon and the Sun bless you, since thou hast taken 
the Day out of the hand of King William. 



DRUIDISM 89 

and St. Patrick appears to allude to sun-worship in that passage 
of his " Confession," where he says, " that sun which we see 
rising daily at His bidding for our sake, it will never reign, 
and its splendour will not last for ever, but those who adore it 
will perish miserably for all eternity : " this is also borne out 
by the passage in Cormac's Glossary of the images the pagans 
used to adore, " as, for instance, the form or figure of the sun 
on the altar." * 

Another phase of the druidic character seems to have been 
that he was looked upon as an intermediary between man and 
the invisible powers. In the story which tells us how Midir 
the De Danann, carries off the king's wife, we are informed 
that the druid's counsel is sought as to how to recover her, 
which he at last is enabled to do "through his keys of science 
and Ogam," after a year's searching. 

The druids are represented as carrying wands of yew, but 
there is nothing in Irish literature, so far as I am aware of, 
about their connection with the oak, from the Greek for 
which, SpvQj 2 they are popularly supposed to derive their 
name. They used to be consulted as soothsayers upon the 
probable success of expeditions, as by Cormac mac Art, when 
he was thinking about extorting a double tribute from 
Munster,3 and by Dathi, the last pagan king of Ireland, when 

And a little later we find the harper Carolan swearing " by the light of 
the sun." 

" Molann gach aon an te bhios craibhtheach coir, 
Agus molann gach aon an te bhios pairteach leo, 
Dar solas na greine se mo radh go deo 
Go molfad gan speis gan bhreig an t-ath mar geobhad." 

1 See above, p. 55, note. 

2 The genitive of drai, the modern draoi (dhree) is dntad, from whence 
no doubt the Latin druidis. It was Pliny who first derived the name from 
Spvg. The word with a somewhat altered meaning was in use till recently. 
The wise men from the East are called druids (draoifhe) in O'Donnell's 
translation of the New Testament. The modern word for enchantment 
(draoi dheachf) is literally " druidism," but an enchanter is usually 
draoi dhcadoir, a derivation from draoi. 

3 See above, p. 29, note 2. 



90 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

setting out upon his expedition abroad ; they took auguries by 
birds, they could cause magic showers and fires, they observed 
stars and clouds, they told lucky days, 1 they had ordeals of their 
own, 2 but, above all, they appear to have been tutors or teachers. 
Another druidic practice which is mentioned in Cormac's 
Glossary is more fully treated of by Keating, in his account 
of the great pagan convention at Uisneach, a hill in Meath, 
" where the men of Ireland were wont to exchange their 
goods and their wares and other jewels." This convention 
was held in the month of May, 

" And at it they were wont to make a sacrifice to the arch-god, 
whom they adored, whose name was Bel. It was likewise their 
usage to light two fires to Bel in every district in Ireland at this 
season, and to drive a pair of each herd of cattle that the district 
contained between these two fires, as a preservative, to guard them 
against all the diseases of that year. It is from that fire thus made 
that the day on which the noble feast of the apostles Peter and 
James is held has been called Bealtaine [in Scotch Beltane], i.e., 
Bel's fire." 

Cormac, however, says nothing about a god named Bel — who, 
indeed, is only once mentioned elsewhere, so far as I know 3 — 
but explains the name as if it were Bil-tene, " goodly fire," 
from the fires which the druids made on that day through 
which to drive the cattle.4 

1 Cathbad, Conor mac Nessa's Druid, foretold that any one who took 
arms — the Irish equivalent for knighthood — upon a certain day, would 
become famous for ever, but would enjoy only a brief life. It was 
Cuchulain who assumed arms upon that day. 

2 O'Curry quotes a druidic ordeal from the MS. marked H. 3. 17 in 
Trinity College, Dublin. A woman to clear her character has to rub her 
tongue to a red-hot adze of bronze, which had been heated in a lire of 
blackthorn or rowan-tree. 

3 " Revue Celt.," vol. ii. p. 443. Is Bel to be equated with what Rhys 
calls in one place " the chthonian divinity Beli the Great," of the Britons, 
and in another " Beli the Great, the god of death and darkness " ? {See 
" Hibbert Lectures," pp. 168 and 274.) 

4 The Christian priests, apparently unable to abolish these cattle 
ceremonies, took the harm out of them by transferring them to St. John's 



DRU1DISM 91 

Post-Christian accounts of the druids as a whole, and or 
individual druids differ widely. The notes on St. Patrick, 
in the Book of Armagh, present them in the worst 
possible light as wicked wizards and augurs and people of 
incantations, 1 and the Latin lives of the Saints nearly always 
call them "magi." Yet they are admitted to have been able 
to prophecy. King Laoghaire's [Leary's] druids prophesied 
to him three years before the arrival of Patrick that " adze-heads 
would come over a furious sea, 

"Their mantles hole-headed, 
Their staves crook-headed, 
Their tables in the east of their houses." a 

In the lives of the early saints we find some of them on 
fair terms with the druids. Columcille's first teacher was a 
druid, whom his mother consulted about him. It is true that 
in the Lismore text he is called not a druid but a faidh, i.e., 
vates or prophet, but this only confirms the close connection 
between druid, prophet, and teacher, for his proceedings are 
distinctly druidical, the account runs : " Now when the time 
for reading came to him the cleric went to a certain prophet 

Eve, the 24th of June, where they are still observed in most districts of 
Ireland, and large fires built with bones in them, and occasionally cattle 
are driven through them or people leap over them. The cattle were pro- 
bably driven through the fire as a kind of substitute for their sacrifice, 
and the bones burnt in the fire are probably a substitute for the bones 
of the cattle that should have been offered up. Hence the fires are 
called "teine cnamh " (bone-lire) in Irish, and bone-fire (not bonfire) in 
English. 

1 St. Patrick is there stated to have found around the king " scivos et 
magos et auruspices, incantatores et omnis malas artis inventores." 

2 This means tonsured men, with cowls, with pastoral staves, with 
altars in the east end of the churches. The ancient Irish rann is very 
curious : — 

"Ticcat Tailcinn 
Tar muir meirceann, 
A mbruit toillceann. 
A crainn croimceann. 
A miasa n-airrter tige 
Friscerat uile amen." 



92 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

who abode in the land to ask him when the boy ought to 
begin. When the prophet had scanned the sky, he said 'Write 
an alphabet for him now.' The alphabet was written on a 
cake, and Columcille consumed the cake in this wise, half to 
the east of a water, and half to the west of a water. Said the 
prophet through grace of prophecy, * So shall this child's 
territory be, half to the east of the sea, and half to the west of 
the sea.' " * Columcille himself is said to have composed a 
poem beginning, " My Druid is the son of God." Another 
druid prophesies of St. Brigit before she was born, 2 and other 
instances connecting the early saints with druids are to be 
found in their lives, which at least show that there existed 
a sufficient number of persons in early Christian Ireland who 
did not consider the druids wholly bad, but believed that 
they could prophecy, at least in the interests of the saints. 

From what we have said, it is evident that there were 
always druids in Ireland, and that they were personages of 
great importance. But it is not clear that they were an 
organised body like the druids of Gaul,3 or like the Bardic 
body in later times in Ireland, nor is it clear what their exact 
functions were, but they seem to have been teachers above 
everything else. It is clear, too, that the ancient Irish — at 
least in some cases — possessed and worshipped images. That 
they sacrificed to them, and even offered up human beings, is 
by no means so certain, the evidence for this resting upon the 
single passage in the Dinnseanchas, and the poem (in a modern 
style of metre) in the Book of Leinster, which we have just 
given, and which though it is evidence for the existence of the 
idol Crom Cruach, known to us already from other sources, 
may possibly have had the trait of human sacrifice added as a 
heightening touch by a Christian chronicler familiar with the 

1 I.e., one half in Ireland, the other in Scotland, alluding to his work at 
Iona and among the Picts. 

2 Stokes, "Lives of the Saints, from the Book of Lismore," p. 183. 

3 Who were, according to Ammianus Marcellinus, quoting the Greek 
historian, Timagenes, " sodaliciis adstricti consortiis." 



DRUIDISM 93 

accounts of Moloch and Ashtaroth. The complete silence 
which, outside of these passages, 1 exists in all Irish literature 
as to a proceeding so terrifying to the popular imagination, 
seems to me a proof that if human sacrifice was ever resorted 
to at all, it had fallen into abeyance before the landing of 
the Christian missionaries. 

1 There is one other instance of human sacrifice mentioned in the Book 
of Ballymote, but this is recorded in connection with funeral games, and 
appears to have been an isolated piece of barbarity performed " that it 
might be a reproach to the Momonians for ever, and that it might be a 
trophy over them." Fiachra, a brother of Niall of the Nine Hostages, in 
the fourth century, carried off fifty hostages from Munster, and dying of 
his wounds, the hostages were buried alive with him, round his grave : 
" ro hadnaicead na geill tucadh a neass ocus siad beo im fheart Fiachra 
comba hail for Mumain do gres, ocus comba comrama forra." For 
another allusion to " human sacrifice " see O'Curry's " Manners and 
Customs," vol. i. p. dcxli and cccxxxiii. The " Dinnseanchas," quoted 
from above, is a topographical work explaining the origin of Irish place- 
names, and attributed to Amerginmac Amhalgaidh, poet to King Diarmuid 
mac Cearbaill, who lived in the sixth century. "There seems no reason, "says 
Dr. Atkinson, in his preface to the facsimile Book of Leinster, " for disputing 
his claims to be regarded as the original compiler of a work of a similar 
character — the original nucleus is not now determinable." The oldest 
copy is the Book of Leinster and treats of nearly two hundred places and 
contains eighty-eight poems. The copy in the Book of Ballymote contains 
one hundred and thirty-nine, and that in the Book of Lecan even more. 
The total number of all the poems contained in the different copies is 
close on one hundred and seventy. The copy in the Bodleian Library 
was published by Whitley Stokes in " Folk-lore," December, 1892, and 
that in the Advocates Library, in Edinburgh, in " Folk-lore," December, 
1893. The prose tales, from a copy at Rennes, he published in the " Revue 
Celtique," vols. xv. and xvi. An edition of the oldest copy in the Book 
of Leinster is still a desideratum. The whole work is full of interesting 
pagan allusions, but the different copies, in the case of many names, vary 
greatly and even contradict each other. 



CHAPTER X 

THE IRISH ELYSIUM AND BELIEF IN REBIRTH 

Caesar, writing some fifty years before Christ about the 
Gauls and their Druids, tells his countrymen that one of the 
prime articles which they taught was that men's souls do not 
die — nan interire anlmas — <c but passed over -after death from 
one into another," and their opinion is, adds Caesar, that this 
doctrine " greatly tends to the arousing of valour, all fear of 
death being despised." x A few years later Diodorus Siculus 
wrote that one of their doctrines was " that the souls of men 
are undying, and that after finishing their term of existence 
they pass into another body," adding that at burials of the 
dead some actually cast letters addressed to their departed 
relatives upon the funeral pile, under the belief that the dead 
would read them in the next world. Timagenes, a Greek who 
wrote a history of Gaul now lost, Strabo, Valerius Maximus, 
Pomponius Mela, and Lucan 2 in his " Pharsalia," all have 
passages upon this vivid belief of the Gauls that the soul 
lived again. This doctrine must also have been current in 
Britain, where the Druidic teaching was, to use Caesar's phrase, 

1 "De Bello Gallico," vi. 14. 

2 See "Voyage of Bran," vol. ii. pp. 107-1 11, where all these passages 
have been lucidly collected by Mr. Nutt. 

94 



THE ELYSIUM AND BELIEF IN REBIRTH 95 

"discovered, and thence brought into Gaul," and it would 
have been curious indeed if Ireland did not share in it. 

There is, moreover, abundant evidence to show that the 
doctrine of metempsychosis was perfectly familiar to the pagan 
Irish, as may be seen in the stories of the births of Cuchulain, 
Etain, the Two Swineherds, Conall Cearnach, Tuan Mac 
Cairill, and Aedh Slane. 1 But there is not, in our existing 
literature, any evidence that the belief was ever elevated into 
a philosophical doctrine of general acceptance, applicable to 
every one, still less that there was ever any ethical stress laid 
upon the belief in rebirth. It is only the mythological 
element in the belief in metempsychosis which has come down 
to us, and from which we ascertain that the pagan Irish 
believed that supernatural beings could become clothed in flesh 
and blood, could enter into women and be born again, could 
take different shapes and pass through different stages of 
existence, as fowls, animals, or men. What the actual 
doctrinal form of the familiar idea was, or how far it influenced 
the popular mind, we have no means of knowing. But as 
Mr. Nutt well remarks, " early Irish religion must have 
possessed some ritual, and what in default of an apter term 
must be styled philosophical as well as mythological elements. 
Practically the latter alone have come down to us, and that in 
a romantic rather than in a strictly mythical form. Could 
we judge Greek religion aright if fragments of Apollodorus or 
the 'Metamorphoses ' were all that survived of the literature it 
inspired ? " 2 The most that can be said upon the subject, then, 
is that the doctrine of rebirth was actually taught with a 
deliberate ethical purpose — that of making men brave, since on 
being slain in this life they passed into a new one — amongst 
the Celts of Gaul, that it must have been familiar to the 
Britons between whose Druids and those of Gaul so close a 
resemblance subsisted, and that the idea of rebirth which 

1 All of these have been studied by Mr. Nutt, chap. xiv. 

2 Vol. ii. p. 121. 



g6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

forms part of half-a-dozen existing Irish sagas, was perfectly 
familiar to the Irish Gael, although we have no evidence that 
it was connected with any ritual or taught as a deliberate 
doctrine. 

In reconstructing from our existing literature the beliefs and 
religion ot our ancestors, we can only do so incompletely, and 
with difficulty, from passages in the oldest sagas and other 
antique fragments, mostly of pagan origin, from allusions in 
very early poems, from scanty notices in the annals, and from 
the lives of early saints. The relatively rapid conversion of the 
island to Christianity in the fifth century, and the enthusiasm 
with which the new religion was received, militated against 
any full transmission of pagan belief or custom. We cannot 
now tell whether all the ancient Irish were imbued with the 
same religious beliefs, or whether these varied — as they probably 
did — from tribe to tribe. Probably all the Celtic races, even 
in their most backward state, believed — so far as they had any 
persuasion on the subject at all — in the immortality of the soul. 
Where the souls of the dead went to, when they were not re- 
incarnated, is not so clear. They certainly believed in a happy 
Other- World, peopled by a happy race, whither people were 
sometimes carried whilst still alive, and to gain which they 
either traversed the sea to the north-west, or else entered one 
of the Sidh [Shee]. mounds, or else again dived beneath the 
water. 1 In all cases, however, whatever the mode of access, 
the result is much the same. A beautiful country is discovered 

1 In a large collection of nearly sixty folk-lore stories taken down in 
Irish from the lips of the peasantry, I find about five contain allusions to 
the belief in another world full of life under water, and about four in a life 
in the inside of the hills. The Hy Brasil type — that of finding the dead 
living again on an ocean island — is, so far as I have yet collected, quite 
unrepresented amongst them. An old Irish expression for dying is going 
" to the army of the dead," used by Deirdre in her lament, and I find a 
variant of it so late as the beginning of this century, in a poem by Raftery, 
a blind musician of the county Mayo, who tells his countrymen to remember 
that they must go " to the meadow of the dead." See Raftery' s " Aith- 
reachas," in my " Religious Songs of Connacht," p. 266. 



THE ELYSIUM AND BELIEF IN REBIRTH 97 

where a happy race free from care, sickness, and death, spend 
the smiling hours in simple, sensuous pleasures. 

There is a graphic description of this Elysium in the " Voyage 
of Bran," a poem evidently pagan, 1 and embodying purely 
pagan conceptions. A mysterious female, an emissary from 
the lovely land, appears in Bran's household one day, when the 
doors were closed and the house full of chiefs and princes, and 
no one knew whence she came, and she chanted to them 
twenty-eight quatrains describing the delights of the pleasant 
country. 

" There is a distant isle 
Around which sea-horses glisten, 
A fair course against the white-swelling surge, 
Four feet uphold it. 2 

Feet of white bronze under it, 
Glittering through beautiful ages. 
Lovely land throughout the world's age 
On which the many blossoms drop. 

An ancient tree there is with blossoms 
On which birds call to the Hours. 
'Tis in harmony, it is their wont 
To call together every Hour. 



1 Admirably translated by Kuno Meyer, who says " there are a large 
number of [word] forms in the 'Voyage of Bran,' as old as any to be found 
in the Wurzburg Glosses," and these Professor Thurneysen ascribes unhesi- 
tatingly to the seventh century. Zimmer also agrees that the piece is not 
later than the seventh century, that is, was first written down in the seventh 
century, but this is no criterion of the date of the original composition. 

2 I give Kuno Meyer's translation : in the original — 

" Fil inis i n-eterchein 
Immataitnet gabra rein 
Kith find fris toibgel tondat 
Ceitheoir cossa foslongat." 

In modern Irish the first two lines would run 

" [Go] bhfuil inis i n-idir-chein 
Urn a dtaithnigeann gabhra rein." 

Rein being the genitive of rian, " the sea," which, according to M. d'Arbois, 
the Gaels brought with them as a reminiscence of the Rhine, see above p. 10. 

G 



93 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Unknown is wailing or treachery 
In the familiar cultivated land, 
There is nothing rough or harsh, 
But sweet music striking on the ear. 

Without grief, without sorrow, without death, 
Without any sickness, without debility, 
That is the sign of Emain, 
Uncommon, an equal marvel. 

A beauty of a wondrous land 
Whose aspects are lovely, 
Whose view is a fair country, 
Incomparable in its haze. 



The sea washes the wave against the land, 
Hair of crystal drops from its mane. 

Wealth, treasures of every hue, 

Are in the gentle land, a beauty of freshness, 

Listening to sweet music, 

Drinking the best of wine. 

Golden chariots on the sea plain 
Rising with the tide to the sun, 
Chariots of silver in the plain of sports 
And of unblemished bronze. 



At sunrise there will come 

A fair man illumining level lands, 

He rides upon the fair sea-washed plain, 

He stirs the ocean till it is blood. 



Then they row to the conspicuous stone 
From which arise a hundred strains. 

It sings a strain unto the host 

Through long ages, it is not sad, 

Its music swells with choruses of hundreds; 

They look for neither decay nor death. 



THE ELYSIUM AND BELIEF IN REBIRTH 99 

There will come happiness with health 

To the land against which laughter peals. 

Into Imchiuin [the very calm place] at every season, 

Will come everlasting joy. 

It is a day of lasting weather 
That showers [down] silver on the land, 
A pure-white cliff in the verge of the sea 
Which from the sun receives its heat." 

Manannan, the Irish Neptune, driving in a chariot across the 
sea, which to him was a flowery plain, meets Bran thereafter, 
and chants to him twenty-eight more verses about the lovely 
land of Moy Mell, " the Pleasant Plain," which the unknown 
lady had described, and they are couched in the same strain. 

" Though [but] one rider is seen 
In Moy Mell of many powers, 
There are many steeds on its surface 
Although thou seest them not. 



A beautiful game, most delightful 
They play [sitting] at the luxurious wine, 
Men and gentle women under a bush 
Without sin, without crime. 



A wood with blossom and fruit, 
On which is the vine's veritable fragrance ; 
A wood without decay, without defect, 
On which are leaves of golden hue." 

Then, prophesying of the death of Mongan, he sang — 

" He will drink a drink from Loch Lo, 
While he looks at the stream of blood ; 
The white hosts will take him under a wheel of clouds, 
To the gathering where there is no sorrow." 

I know of few things in literature comparable to tin's lovely v 
description, at once so mystic and so sensuous, of the joys of 



ioo LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

the other world. To my mind it breathes the very essence of 
Celtic glamour, and is shot through and through with the 
Celtic love of form, beauty, landscape, company, and the 
society of woman. How exquisite the idea of being trans- 
ported from this world to an isle around which sea-horses 
glisten, where from trees covered with blossoms the birds call 
in harmony to the Hours, a land whose haze is incomparable ! 
What a touch ! Where hair of crystal drops from the mane 
of the wave as it washes against the land ; where the chariots 
of silver and of bronze assemble on the plain of sports, 
in the country against which laughter peals, and the day of 
lasting weather showers silver on the land. And then to play 
sitting at the luxurious wine — 

" Men and gentle women under a bush 
Without sin, without crime ! " 

I verily believe there is no Gael alive even now who would 
not in his heart of hearts let drift by him the Elysiums of 
Virgil, Dante, and Milton to grasp at the Moy Mell of the 
unknown Irish pagan. 

In another perhaps equally ancient story, that of the elope- 
ment of Connla, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, 1 with a 
lady who is a denizen of this mysterious land, we find the 
unknown visitor giving nearly the same account of it as that 
given to Bran. 

" Whence hast thou come, O Lady ? " said the Druid. 

" I have come," said she, " from the lands of the living in 
which there is neither death, nor sin, nor strife; 2 we enjoy 
perpetual feasts without anxiety, and benevolence without 
contention. A large Sidh [Shee, "fairy-mound"] is where we 

1 Preserved in the Leabhar na h-Uidhre, a MS. compiled from older 
ones about the year noo. See for this story " Gaelic Journal," vol. ii. 
p. 306. 

2 " Dodcochadsafor in ben a tirib bed ait inna bi bris na peccad na imorbus, 
i.e. [go], ndeachas-sa ar san bhean 6 tiribh na mbeo, ait ann nach mbionn 
bas na peacadh na immarbhadh." 



THE ELYSIUM AND BELIEF IN REBIRTH 101 

dwell, so that it is hence we are called the Sidh [Shee] 
people." 

The Druids appear, as I have already remarked, to have 
acted as intermediaries between the inhabitants of the other 
world and of this, and in the story of Connla one of them 
chants against the lady so that her voice was not heard, and he 
drives her away through his incantation. She comes back, 
however, at the end of a month, and again summons the prince. 

" 'Tis no lofty seat," she chanted, " upon which sits Connla 
amid short-lived mortals awaiting fearful death ; the ever-living 
ones invite thee to be the ruler over the men of Tethra." 

Conn of the Hundred Battles, who had overheard her 
speech, cried, u Call me the Druid ; I see her tongue has 
been allowed her to-day [again]." 

But she invisible to all save the prince replied to him — 

"O Conn of the Hundred Battles, druidism is not loved, 
for little has it progressed to honour on the great Righteous 
Strand, with its numerous, wondrous, various families."' 

After that she again invites the prince to follow her, 
saying — 

" There is another land which it were well to seek. 

I see the bright sun is descending, though far off we shall reach it 

ere night. 
'Tis the land that cheers the mind of every one that turns to me. 
There is no race in it save only women and maidens." 

The prince is overcome with longing. He leaps into her 
well-balanced, gleaming boat of pearl. Those who were left 
behind upon the strand " saw them dimly, as far as the sight 
of their eyes could reach. They sailed the sea away from 
them, and from that day to this have not been seen, and it is 
unknown where they went to." 

In the fine story of Cuchulain's sick-bed, 1 in which though 

x Also contained in the Leabhar na h-Uidhre, a MS. transcribed about 
the year noo. 



102 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

the language of the text is not so ancient, the conceptions 
are equally pagan, the deserted wife of Manannan, the Irish 
Neptune, falls in love with the human warrior, and invites 
him to the other-world to herself, through the medium of an 
ambassadress. Cuchulain sends his charioteer Laeg along with 
this mysterious ambassadress, that he may bring him word 
again, to what kind of land he is invited. Laeg, when he 
returns, repeats a glowing account of its beauty, which 
coincides closely with those given by the ladies who summoned 
Bran and Connla. 

" There are at the western door, 

In the place where the sun goes down, 
A stud of steeds of the best of breeds 
Of the grey and the golden brown. 

There wave by the eastern door 

Three crystal-crimson trees, 
Whence the warbling bird all day is heard 

On the wings of the perfumed breeze. 

And before the central door 

Is another, of gifts untold. 
All silvern-bright in the warm sunlight, 

Its branches gleam like gold." x 



In the saga of the Wooing of Etain we meet with what is 
substantially the same description. She is the wife of one of 
the Tuatha De Danann, is reborn as a mortal, and weds the 
king of Ireland. Her former husband, Midir, still loves her, 
follows her, and tries to win her back. She is unwilling, and 
he chants to her this description of the land to which he would 
lure her. 

1 Literally : " There are at the western door, in the place where the sun 
goes down, a stud of steeds with grey-speckled manes and another crimson 
brown. There are at the eastern door three ancient trees of crimson 
crystal, from which incessantly sing soft-toned birds. There is a tree in 
front of the court, it cannot be matched in harmony, a tree of silver against 
which the sun shines, like unto gold is its great sheen." 



THE ELYSIUM AND BELIEF IN REBIRTH 103 

" Come back to me, lady, to love and to shine 
In the land that was thine in the long-ago, 
Where of primrose hue is the golden hair 

And the limbs are as fair as the wreathed snow. 

To the lakes of delight that no storm may curl, 
Where the teeth are as pearl, the eyes as sloes, 

Which alight, whenever they choose to seek, 

On the bloom of a cheek where the foxglove glows. 

Each brake is alive with the flowers of spring, 
Whence the merles sing in their shy retreat ; 

Though sweet be the meadows of Innisfail, 
Our beautiful vale is far more sweet. 

Though pleasant the mead be of Innisfail, 
More pleasant the ale of that land of mine, 

A land of beauty, a land of truth, 

Where youth shall never grow old or pine. 

Fair rivers brighten the vale divine, — 

There are choicest of wine and of mead therein, 

And heroes handsome and women fair 
Are in dalliance there without stain or sin. 

From thence we see, though we be not seen, 
We know what has been and shall be again, 

And the cloud that was raised by the first man's fall, 
Has concealed us all from the eyes of men. 

Then come with me, lady, to joys untold, 
And a circlet of gold on thy head shall be, 

Banquets of milk and of wine most rare, 
Thou shalt share, O lady, and share with me." * 

1 A Befind in raga lim / I tir n-ingnad hifil rind / Is barr sobairche folt 
and / Is dath snechtu chorp coind. Literally : " O lady fair wouldst thou 
come with me to the wondrous land that is ours, where the hair is as the 
blossom of the primrose, where the tender body is as fair as snow. 
There shall be no grief there nor sorrow ; white arc the teeth there, black 
are the eyebrows, a delight to the eye is the number of our host, and on 
every cheek is the hue of the foxglove. 

"The crimson of the foxglove is in every brake, delightful to the eye 
[there] the blackbird's eggs. Although pleasant to behold are the plains of 
Innisfail, alter frequenting the Great Plain rarely wouldst thou | remember 
them]. Though heady to thee the ale of Innisfail, headier the ale of the 



104 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

The casual Christian allusion in the penultimate verse need 
not lead us astray, nor does it detract from the essentially 
pagan character of the rest, for throughout almost the whole 
of Irish literature the more distinctly or ferociously pagan any 
piece is, the more certain it is to have a Christian allusion 
added at the end as a make-weight. There is great ingenuity 
displayed in thus turning the pagan legend into a Christian 
homily by the addition of two lines suggesting that if men 
were not sinful, this beautiful pagan world and the beautiful 
forms that inhabited it would be visible to the human ken. 
This was sufficient to disarm any hostility to the legend on the 
part of the Church. 

From what we have said it is evident that the ancient Irish 
pagans believed in the possibility of rebirth, and founded 
many of their mythical sagas on the doctrine of metempsychosis, 
and that they had a highly ornate and fully-developed belief in 
a happy other-world or Elysium, to which living beings were 
sometimes carried off without going through the forms of 
death. But it is impossible to say whether rebirth with life 
in another world, for those whom the gods favoured, was 
taught as a doctrine or had any ethical significance attached to 
it by the druids of Ireland, as it most undoubtedly had by 
their cousins the druids of Gaul. 



great land, a beauty of a land, the land I speak of. Youth never grows 
there into old age. Warm, sweet streams traverse the country with 
choicest mead and choicest wine, handsome persons [are there], without 
blemish, conception without sin, without stain. 

" We see every one on every side, and no one seeth us ; the cloud of 
Adam's wrong-doing has concealed us from being numbered. O lady, if 
thou comest to my brave land, it is a crown of gold shall be upon thy 
head, fresh flesh of swine, banquets of new milk and ale shalt thou have 
with me then, fair lady." 

Apropos of the Irish liking for swine's flesh, Stanihurst tells a good 
story : " ' No meat,' says he, ' they fansie so much as porke, and the fatter 
the better. One of John O'Nel's [Shane O'Neill's] household demanded 
of his fellow whether beefe were better than porke. ' That,' quoth the 
other, ' is as intricate a question as to ask whether thou art better than 
O'Nell/ " 















CHAPTER XI 

EARLY USE OF LETTERS, OGAM AND ROMAN 

We now come to the question, When and where did the Irish 
get their alphabet, and at what time did they begin to practise 
the art of writing ? The present alphabet of the Irish, which 
they have used in all their books from the seventh century 
down, and probably for three hundred years before that, is only 
a modification — and a peculiarly beautiful one — of the Roman 
letters. This alphabet they no doubt borrowed from their 
neighbours, the Romanised Britons, within whose territory 
they had established themselves, and with whom — now in 
peace, now in war — they carried on a vigorous and constant 
intercourse. 1 The general use of letters in Ireland is, how- 
ever, to be attributed to the early Christian missionaries. 

But there is no reason to believe that it was St. Patrick, or 
indeed any missionary, who first introduced them. There 
probably were in Ireland many persons in the fourth century, 
or perhaps even earlier, who were acquainted with the art of 

1 Dr. Jones, the Bishop of St. Davids, in his interesting book, :< Vestiges 

of the Gael in Gwynedd " (North Wales) has come to the conclusion that 

the Irish occupied the whole of Anglesey, Carnarvon, Merioneth, and 

1 Cardiganshire, with at least portions of Denbighshire, Montgomery, and 

I Radnor. Their occupation of part of the south and south-west of 

' England is attested by the area of Ogam finds. 

105 



io6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

writing. Already, at the beginning of the third century at 
least, says Zimmer in his " Keltische Studien," British 
missionaries were at work in the south of Ireland. Bede, in 
his history, says distinctly that Palladius was sent from Rome 
in the year 431 to the Irish "who believed in Christ" — "ad 
Scottos in Christum credentes." Already, at the close of the 
third century, there was an organised British episcopate, and 
three British bishops attended the Council of Aries held in 
314. It is quite impossible that the numerous Irish colonies 
settled in the south of England and in Wales could have 
failed to come into contact with this organised Church, and 
even to have been influenced by it. The account in the 
Acta Sanctorum, of Declan, Bishop of Waterford, said to 
have been born in 347, and of Ailbe, another southern bishop, 
who met St. Patrick, may be looked upon as perfectly true 
in so far as it relates to the actual existence of these pre- 
Patrician bishops. St. Chrysostom, writing in the year 387, 
mentions that already churches and altars had been erected in 
the British Isles. Pelagius, the subtle and persuasive heresiarch 
who taught with such success at Rome about the year 400, 
and acquired great influence there, was of Irish descent — " habet 
progeniem Scotticas gentis de Brittanorum vicinia," said St. 
Jerome. As St. Augustine and Prosper of Aquitaine call 
him "Briton" and " British scribe," he probably belonged to 
one of the Irish colonies settled in Wales or the South-west of 
England. His success at Rome is a proof that some Irish 
families at least were within reach of literary education in the 
fourth century. His friend and teacher, Celestius, has also 
been claimed as an Irishman, but Dr. Healy has shov/n that 
this claim is perhaps founded upon a misconception. 1 

" The influence of the ancient Irish on the Continent," 
says Dr. Sigerson, " began in the works of Sedulius, 
whose ' Carmen Paschale,' published in the fifth century, 

1 " Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars," p. 39. I find Migne, in his 
note on Pelagius, apparently confounding Scotia with Great Britain. 



EARLY USE OF LETTERS 10; 

is the first great Christian epic worthy of the name." 
Sedulius, the Virgil of theological poetry, flourished in 
the first half of the fifth century, and seems to have 
studied in Gaul, passed into Italy, and finally resided in 
Achaia in Greece, which he seems to have made his 
home. There are at least eight Irish Siadals (in Latin 
Sedulius, in English Shiel) commemorated by Colgan. The 
strongest evidence of Sedulius's Irish nationality is that the 
Irish geographer Dicuil, in the eighth century, quoting some 
of his lines, calls him noster Sedulius. John of Tritenheim, 
towards the close of the fifteenth century, distinctly calls him 
an Irishman natlone Scotus y but attributes to him the verses 
of a later Sedulius. Dr. Sigerson, by a clever analysis of his 
verse-peculiarities confirms this opinion. 1 

In the " Tripartite Life of St. Patrick " we read that the 
druids at the king's court, when St. Patrick arrived there, 
possessed books, and when, at a later date, St. Patrick deter- 
mined upon revising the Brehon law code, the books in 
which it was written down were laid before him. That there 
has come down to our time no written record earlier than the 
seventh or eighth century 2 is chiefly due to the enormous 
destruction of books by the Danes and English. The same 
causes produced a like effect in Britain, for the oldest surviving 
British MSS. are not even as old as ours, although the art of 
writing must have been known and practised there since the 
Roman occupation. 

The Irish had, however, another system of writing which 

1 See for Dr. Sigerson's ingenious argument "Bards of the Gael and 
Gaul," Introduction, p. 30. 

2 Except perhaps on stone. There is an inscription on a stone in 
Galvvay, "Lie Luguaedon Mace Lmenueh," for a facsimile of which 
see O'Donovan's grammar, p. 411. O'Donovan says it was set up over ;i 
nephew of St. Patrick's. Mr. Macalister reads it no doubt correctly, "Lie 
Luguaedon macci Mermen." This is probably the oldest extant inscription 
in Roman letters, and it shows that the old Ogam form maqui had already 
changed into mac[c]i. The "c" in place of "q" is only found on the 
later Ogam stones, and only one stone is found to read "maic." 



ioS LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

they themselves invented. This was the celebrated Ogam 
script, consisting of a number of short lines, straight or slant- 
ing, 1 and drawn either below, above, or through one long 
stem-line, which stem-line is generally the angle between two 
sides of a long upright rectangular stone. These lines repre- 
sented letters ; and over two hundred stones have been found 
inscribed with Ogam writing. It is a remarkable fact that 
rude as this device for writing is, it has been applied with 
considerable skill, and is framed with much ingenuity. For in 
every case it is found that those letters which, like the vowels, 
are most easily pronounced, are also in Ogam the easiest to 
inscribe, and the simpler sounds are represented by simpler 
characters than those that are more complex. To account for 
the philosophical character of this alphabet 2 "than which no 

1 Thus four cuts to the right of or below the long line stand for S, above 
it they mean C, passing through the long line half on one side and half on 
the other they mean E. These straight lines, being easily cut on stone 
with a chisel, continued long in use. The long line, with reference to 
which all the letters are drawn, is usually the right angle or corner of the 
upright stone between the two sides. The inscription usually begins at 
the left-hand corner of the stone facing the reader and is read upwards, 
and is sometimes continued down on the right-hand angular line as well. 
The vowels are very small cuts on the angle of the stone, but much larger 
than points. There is no existing book written in Ogam, but various 
alphabets of it have been preserved in the Book of Ballymote, and some 
small metal articles have been found inscribed with it, showing that its 
use was not peculiar to pillar stones. 

2 See a curious monograph by Dr. Ernst Rethwisch entitled, " Die 
Inschrift von Killeen Cormac und der Ursprung der Sprache," 1886. 
" Einfachere Schriftzeichen als das keltische Alphabet sind nicht 
denkbar . . . die Vocale haben die einfachsten Symbole und unter den 
Vocalen haben wieder die am bequemsten auszusprechenden bequemer 
zu machende Zeichen wie die Andern. Unter den Consonanten, hat die 
Klasse die am schwierigsten gelingt . . . die am wenigsten leicht 
einzuritzenden Zeichen : die Gaumenlaute." He is greatly struck by " der 
so verstandig und sacbgemass erscheinende Trieb dem einfachsten Laut 
das einfachste Symbol zu widmen." " Eine Erklarung [of the rational 
simplicity of the Ogam script] ist nur moglich wenn man annimmt dass 
die naturliche Begabung der Kelten, der praktische auf Einfachheit und 
Beobachtungsgabe beruhende Sinn viel fruher zii einer gewissen Reife 
gediehen sind, als bei den Indogermanischen Verwandten " (p. 29). 



EARLY USE OF LETTERS 109 

simpler method of writing is imaginable," a German, Dr. 
Rethwisch, who examined it from this side, concluded that 
"the natural gifts of the Celts and their practical genius for 
simplicity and obser/ation ripened up to a certain stage far 
earlier than those of their Indo-European relations." This 
statement, however, rests upon the as yet unproved assump- 
tion that Ogam writing is pre-Christian and pagan. What 
is of more interest is that the author of it supposed that with 
one or two changes it would make the simplest conceivable 
universal-alphabat or international code of writing. It is very 
strange that nearly all the Irish Ogam stones are found in the 
south-west, chiefly in the counties of Cork and Kerry, with 
a few scattered over the rest of the country — but one in West 
Connacht, and but one or two at the most in Ulster. 
Between twenty and thirty more have been found in Wales 
and Devonshire, and one or two even farther east, thus bear- 
ing witness to the colonies planted by the Irish marauders in 
early Britain, for Ogam writing is peculiar to the Irish Gael 
and only found where he had settled. Ten stones more have 
been found in Scotland, probably the latest in date of any, for 
some of these, unlike the Irish stones, bear Christian symbols. 
Many Ogams have been easily read, thanks to the key con- 
tained in the Book of Ballymote ; thanks also to the fact that 
one or two Ogams have been found with duplicates inscribed 
in Latin letters. But many still defy all attempts at decipher- 
ing them, though numerous efforts have been made, treating 
them as though they were cryptic ciphers, which they were 
long believed to be. That Ogam was, as some assert, an 
early cryptic alphabet, and one intended to be read only by 
the initiated, is both in face of the numbers of such inscrip- 
tions already deciphered and in the face of the many instances 
recorded in our oldest sagas of its employment, an absurd 
hypothesis. It is nearly always treated in them as an ordinary 
script which any one could read. It may, however, have been 
occasionally used in later times in a cryptic sense, names being 



no LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

written backwards or syllables transposed, but this was certainly 
not the original invention. Some of the latest Ogam pillars 
are gravestones of people who died so late as the year 600, 
but what proportion of them, if any, date from before the 
Christian era it is as yet impossible to tell. Certain it is that 
the grammatical forms of the language inscribed upon most of 
them are vastly older than those of the very oldest manuscripts, 1 
and agree with those of the old Gaulish linguistic monuments. 
Cormac's Glossary — a work of the ninth or tenth century — 
the ancient sagas, and many allusions in the older literature, 
would seem to show that Ogam writing was used by the 
pagan Irish. Cormac, explaining the word fe^ says that " it 
was a wooden rod used by the Gael for measuring corpses 
and graves, and that this rod used always to be kept in the 
burial-places of the heathen, and it was a horror to every 
one even to take it in his hand, and whatever was abominable 
to them they (the pagans) used to inscribe on it in Ogam." 2 
The sagas also are full of allusions to Ogam writing. In the 
" Tain Bo Chuailgne," which probably assumed substantially 
its present shape in the seventh century, we are told how 
when Cuchulain, after assuming arms, drove into Leinster with 

1 As Curd and maqi for the genitives of Core and mac. In later times 
the genitive ending i, became incorporated in the body of the word, 
making Cuirc and maic in the MSS., which latter subsequently became 
attenuated still further into the modern mic. Another very common and j 
important form is avi, which has been explained as from a nominative 
*avios [for (*p)avios], Old Irish auc, modern ua or 0. Another extra- \ 
ordinary feature is the suffix *gnos = cnos, the regular patronymic forma- 
tive of the Gaulish inscriptions. Another important word is muco, genitive 
mucoi, meaning " descendant," but in some cases apparently " chief." 
The word anm or even ancm, which often precedes the genitive of the 
proper noun, as anm meddugim, has not yet been explained or accounted 
for. All these examples help to show the great age of the linguistic 
monuments preserved in Ogam. 

2 "Ocus no bid in flesc sin dogres irelcib nangente ocus bafuath la each a 
gabail inalaim ocus each ni ba hadetchi leo dobertis [lege nobentis] tria 
Ogam innti, i.e. Agus do bhiodh an fleasg sin do ghnath i reiligibh na 
ngente, agus budh fuath, le each a gabhail ann a laimh, agus gach nidh 
budh ghranna leo do bhainidis [ghearradaois] tre Ogham innti." 



EARLY USE OF LETTERS in 

his charioteer and came to the dun or fort of the three sons 
of Nechtan, he found on the lawn before the court a stone 
pillar, around which was written in Ogam that every hero 
who passed thereby was bound to issue a challenge. This was 
clearly no cryptic writing but the ordinary script, meant to be 
read by every one who passed. 1 Cuchulain in the same saga 
frequently cuts Ogam on wands, which he leaves in the way 
of Meve's army. These are always brought to his friend 
Fergus to read. Perhaps the next oldest allusion to Ogam 
writing is in the thoroughly pagan "Voyage of Bran," which 
both Zimmer and Kuno Meyer consider to have been com- 
mitted to writing in the seventh century. We are there told 
that Bran wrote the fifty or sixty quatrains of the poem in 
Ogam. Again, in Cormac's Glossary 2 we find a story of how 
Lomna Finn mac Cool's fool (druth) made an Ogam and 
put it in Finn's way to tell him how his wife had been 
unfaithful to him. A more curious case is the story in the 
Book of Leinster of Core's flying to the Court of King 
Feradach in Scotland. Not knowing how he might be 
received he hid in a wood near by. The King's poet, how- 
ever, meets him and recognises him, having seen him before 
that in Ireland. The poet notices an Ogam on the prince's 
shield, and asks him, " Who was it that befriended you with 
that Ogam, for it was not good luck which he designed for 
you ? " " Why," asked the prince, " what does it contain ? " 
" What it contains," said the poet, " is this — that if by day 
you arrive at the Court of Feradach the king, your head shall 
be struck off before night ; if it be at night you arrive your 
head shall be struck off before morning." 3 This Ogam was 

'See Zimmer's "Summary of the Tain Bo Chuailgne," Zcit. f. vgl. } 
Sprachforschung, 1887, p. 448. 

2 Under the word ore trdith. 

3 The classical reader need hardly be reminded of the striking resem- 
blance between this and the arifiara \vypd which, according to Homer, 
Prcetus gave the unsuspecting Bellerophon to bring to the King of Lycia, 
ypd\pa.£ iv tt'ivclki tttvictoj dvpo^dooa iroWd. 



ii2 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

apparently readable only by the initiated, for the prince did not 
himself know what he was bearing on his shield. 

All ancient Irish literature, then, is unanimous in attributing 
a knowledge of Ogam to the pre-Christian Irish. M. d'Arbois 
de Jubainville seems also to believe in its pagan antiquity, for 
when discussing the story of St. Patrick's setting a Latin 
alphabet before Fiach, and of the youth's learning to read the 
Psalms within the following four-and-twenty hours, he remarks 
that the story is just possible since Fiach should have known 
the Ogam alphabet, and except for the form of the letters it 
and the Latin alphabet were the same. 1 

St. Patrick, too, tells us in his " Confession " how after his 
flight from Ireland he saw a man coming as it were from that 
country with innumerable letters, a dream that would scarcely 
have visited him had he known that there was no one in 
Ireland who could write letters. 2 

The Ogam alphabet, however, is based upon the Roman. 
Of this there can be no doubt, for it contains letters which, 

1 The " alphabet" laid before Fiacc, however, was not a list of letters, but 
a kind of brief catechism, in Latin " Elementa." St. Patrick is said to have 
written a number of these " alphabets " with his own hand. 

2 The " Confession " and Epistles attributed to St. Patrick are, by Whitley 
Stokes, Todd, Ussher, and almost all other authorities, considered genuine. 
Recently J. V. Pflugk-Harttung, in an article in the " Neuer Heidelberger 
Jahrbuch," Jahrgang iii., Heft. I., 1893, has tried to show by internal 
evidence that the " Confession " and Epistle, especially the former, are a little 
later than St. Patrick's time, and he relies strongly on this passage, saying 
that it is difficult to imagine how St. Patrick came by the idea that a 
man could bring him " innumerable letters from the heathen Ireland of 
that time, where, except for Ogams and inscribed stones (ausser Oghams 
unci Skulpturzcichen), the art of writing was as yet unknown." But seeing 
that Christian missionaries were almost certainly at work in Munster as 
early as the third century this contention is ridiculous. It is noteworthy, 
however, that even this critic seems to believe in the antiquity of the Ogam 
characters. As to his main contention that the " Confession " is not the work 
of Patrick, Jubainville writes, " II ne m'a pas convaincu " {Revue Celtique, 
vol.xiv. p. 215), and M. L. Duchesne, commenting on Zimmer's view of St. 
Patrick's nebulousness, writes, " Contestir l'authenticite de la Confession 
et de la lettre a Coroticus me semble tres aventure " (Ibid., vol. xv. p. 188), 
and Thurneysen also entirely refuses his credence. 



EARLY USE OF LETTERS 113 

according to the key, represents Q (made by five upright 
strokes above the stem line), Z, and Y, none of which letters 
are used in even the oldest MSS., and two of which at least must 
have been borrowed from the Romans. The most, then, that 
can at present be said with absolute certainty is, as Dr. Whitley 
Stokes cautiously puts it, that these Ogam inscriptions and the 
language in which they are couched are " enough to show that 
some of the Celts of these islands wrote their language before 
the fifth century, the time at which Christianity is supposed to 
have been introduced into Ireland." z The presence of these 
Roman letters never used by the Irish on vellum, and the 
absence of any aspirated letters (which abound even in the 
oldest vellum MSS.) are additional proofs of the antiquity of 
the Ogam alphabet. 

The Irish themselves ascribed the invention of Ogam to 
[the god] Ogma, one of the leading Tuatha De Danann, 2 
and although it may be, as Rhys points out, philologically 
unsound to derive Ogam from Ogma, yet there appears to be 
an intimate connection between the two words, and Ogma 
may well be derived from Ogam, which in its early stage may 
have meant fluency or learning rather than letters. Certainly 
there cannot be any doubt that Ogma, the Tuatha De Danann, 
was the same as the Gaulish god Ogmios of whom Lucian, 
that pleasantest of Hellenes, gives us an account so delightfully 
graphic that it is worth repeating in its entirety as another 
proof of what I shall have more to speak about later on, the 

solidaritv — to use a useful Gallicism — of the Irish and the 

j 

Continental Gauls. 

1 Preface to " Three Old Irish Glossaries," p. lv. Zeuss had already 
commented on the Ogams found in the St. Gall codex of Priscian, and 
written thus of them, " Figurae ergo vel potius liniae ogamicae non 
diversae ab his quae notantur a grammaticis hibernicis, in usu jam in hoc 
vetusto codice, quidni etiam inde a longinquis temporibus?" There are 
eight Ogam sentences in a St. Gall MS. of the ninth century which have 
been published by Nigra in his " Manoscritto irlandese di S. Gallo." 

2 See above, p. 52, note. See O'Donovan's Grammar, p. xxviii, lor the 
original of the passage from the Book of Ballymote. 

H 



ii4 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

"The Celts," 1 says Lucian, "call Heracles in the language of their 
country Ogmios, and they make very strange representations of the 
goc|. With them he is an extremely old man with a bald forehead 
and his few remaining hairs quite grey ; his skin is wrinkled and 
embrowned by the sun to that degree of swarthiness which is cha- 
racteristic of men who have grown old in a seafaring life ; in fact, 
you would fancy him rather to be a Charon or Japetus, one of the 
dwellers in Tartarus, or anybody rather than Heracles. But although 
he is of this description he is nevertheless attired like Heracles, for 
he has on him the lion's skin, and he has a club in the right hand ; 
he is duly equipped with a quiver, and his left hand displays a bow 
stretched out, in these respects he is quite Heracles. 2 It struck me 
then that the Celts took such liberties with the appearance of 
Heracles in order to insult the gods of the Greeks and avenge 
themselves on him in their painting, because he once made a raid 
on their territory, when in search of the herds of Geryon he harassed 
most of the Western peoples. I have not yet, however, mentioned 
the most whimsical part of the picture, for this old man Heracles 
draws after him a great number of men bound by their ears, and the 
bonds are slender cords wrought of gold and amber, like necklaces 
of the most beautiful make ; and although they are dragged on by 
such weak ties they never try to run away, though they could easily 
do it, nor do they at all resist or struggle against them, planting their 
feet in the ground and throwing their weight back in the direction 
contrary to that in which they are being led. Quite the reverse, 
they follow with joyful countenance in a merry mood, and praising 
him who leads them, pressing on, one and all, and slackening their 
chains in their eagerness to proceed ; in fact, they look like men 
who would be grieved should they be set free. But that which 
seemed to me the most absurd thing of all I will not hesitate also to 
tell you : the painter, you see, had nowhere to fix the ends of the 
cords since the right hand of the god held the club and his left the 



1 Translated by Rhys in his " Hibbert Lectures," from Bekker's edition, 
No. 7, and Dindorf's, No. 55. 

2 The Gauls assimilated their pantheon to those of the Greeks and 
Romans in so far as they could, and as the Greek gods are by no means 
always the equivalents of the Roman gods with whom popular opinion 
equated them, still less were of course the Gaulish ; and this is a good 
case in point, for Ogmios has evidently nothing of a Hercules about 
him, though the Gauls tried to make him the equivalent of Hercules by 
giving him the classical club and lion's skin, yet his attributes are per- 
fectly different. 



EARLY USE OF LETTERS 115 

bow ; so he pierced the tip of his tongue and represented the people 
as drawn on from it, and the god turns a smiling countenance 
towards those whom he is leading. Now I stood a long time look- 
ing at these things and wondered, perplexed and indignant. But 
a certain Celt standing by, who knew something about our ways, 
as he showed by speaking good Greek — a man who was quite 
a philosopher I take it in local matters — said to me : ' Stranger, 
I will tell you the secret of the painting, for you seem very 
much troubled about it. We Celts do not consider the power 
of speech to be Hermes as you Greeks do, but we represent it by 
means of Heracles, because he is much stronger than Hermes. Nor 
should you wonder at his being represented as an old man, for the 
power of words is wont to show its perfection in the aged ; for your 
poets are, no doubt, right when they say that the thoughts of young 
men turn with every wind, and that age has something wiser to tell 
us than youth. And so it is that honey pours from the tongue of that 
Nestor of yours, and the Trojan orators speak with a voice of the 
delicacy of the lily, a voice well covered, so to say, with bloom, for 
the bloom of flowers, if my memory does not fail me, has the term 
lilies applied to it. So if this old man Heracles (the power of speech) 
draws men after him, tied to his tongue by their ears, you have no 
reason to wonder ; as you must be aware of the close connection 
between the ears and the tongue. Nor is there any injury done him 
by the latter being pierced ; for I remember, said he, learning, while 
among you, some comic iambics to the effect that all chattering 
fellows have the tongue bored at the tip. In a word, we Celts are 
of opinion that Heracles himself performed everything by the 
power of words, as he was a wise fellow, and that most of his com- 
pulsion was effected by persuasion. His weapons, I take it, were his 
utterances, which are sharp and well-aimed, swift to pierce the 
mind, and you too say that words have wings.' Thus far the 
Celt." 



We see, then, that the Irish legend that it was Ogma (who 
is also said to have been skilled in dialects and poetry) who 
invented the Ogam alphabet, so useful as a medium through 
which to convey language, is quite borne out by the account 
given to Lucian of the Gaulish god Ogmios, the eloquent old 
man whose language was endowed with so great a charm that 
he took his hearers captive. He turns, says Lucian, towards 
his willing captives with a smiling face, and the Irish Ogma, 



n6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

too, is called Ogma "of the shining countenance." 1 Nor 
does the Gaul in dressing Ogma as a Hercules appear to have 
acted altogether whimsically, because not only is Ogma skilled 
in poetry and dialects and the inventor of Ogam, but he is 
also all through the battle of Moytura actually depicted as the 
strong man of the De Danann, strong enough to push a stone 
which eighty pair of oxen could not have moved. 

The modern Irish names for books, reading, writing, letters, 
pens, and vellum, are all derived from the Latin. 2 But there 
seem to have been other names in use to designate the early 
writing materials of the Irish. These were the Taibhli 
Fileadh, " poets' tablets," and Tamhlorg Fileadh, which is 
translated by O'Curry as poets' " headless staves." This 
latter word, whatever may be the exact meaning of it, is at 
least pure Gaelic. We read in the " Colloquy of the Ancients" 
that St. Patrick began to feel a little uneasy at the delight 
with which he listened to the stories of the ancient Fenians, 
and in his over-scrupulous sanctity he feared it might be 
wrong to extract such pleasure from merely mundane narra- 
tions. Accordingly he consulted his two guardian angels on 
the matter, b it received an emphatic response from both of 
them, not onl^ to the effect that there was no harm in listening 
to the stonV » themselves, but actually desiring him to get 
them written down " in poets' tamhlorgs and in the words of 
ollavs, for il will be a rejoicing to numbers and to the good 
people to the end of time, to listen to those stories." 3 An 

1 Grian-aineach, or "of the sunny countenance." See O'Curry MS. 
Mat., p. 249. Ogma was, according to some accounts, brother of Breas, 
who held the regency amongst the Tuatha De Danann for seven years, 
while Nuada was getting his silver hand. 

~ Leabhra, leigheadh, sgriobhadh, litreacha, pinn, meamram. 

3 " A anam a naem-chleirigh ni mo ina trian a seel innisit na senlaeich ut, 
or daig dermait ocus dichhuimne. Ocns sgribthar let-sa i tamlorgaibh 
filed ocus i mbriathraib ollamhan, or bud gairdiugad do clronguibh ocus do 
degdainib deirid aimsire eisdecht fris na scelaib sin" ("Agallamh," p. 101. 

Silva Gadelica," vol. ii.) O'Grady has here translated it by " tabular staffs." 
Tdibhli is evidently a Latin loan word, tabdla. The thing to be remem- 
bered is that Ogam writing on staves appears to be alluded tc. 



EARLY USE OF LETTERS 117 

ancient passage from the Brehon Laws prescribes that a pjet 
may carry a tabhall-lorg or tablet-staff, and O'Curry acutely 
suggests that these so-called tablet-staves were of the nature of 
a fan which could be closed up in the shape of a square stick, 
upon the lines and angles of which the poet wrote in Ogam. 
We can well imagine the almost superstitious reverence which 
in rude times must have attached itself, and which as we know 
did attach itself, to the man who could carry about in his 
hand the whole history and genealogy of his race, and pro- 
bably the catchwords of innumerable poems and the skeletons 
of highly-prized narratives. It was probably through these 
means that the genealogies of which I have spoken were so 
accurately transmitted and kept from the third or fourth 
century, and possibly from a still earlier period. 

Amongst many other accounts of pre-Christian writing 
there is one so curious that it is worth giving here in extenso. 1 

THE STORY OF BAILE MAC BUAIN, THE SWEET-SPOKEN. 

" Buain's only son was Baile. 2 He was specially beloved by 
Aillinn, 2 the daughter of Lewy, 3 son of Fergus Fairge — but some say 
she was the daughter of Owen, son of Dathi — and he was specially 
beloved not of her only, but of every one who evei- heard or saw 
him, on account of his delightful stories. 

" Now Baile and Aillinn made an appointment to mc jt at Rosnaree, 
on the banks of the Boyne in Bregia. And he came f rom Emania 
in the north to meet her, passing over Slieve Fuad and Riuirthuimhne 
to Traigh mBaile (Dundalk), and here he and his troops unyoked 
their chariots, sent their horses out to pasture, and gave themselves 
up to pleasure and happiness. 

" And while they were there they saw a horrible spectral personage 
coming towards them from the South. Vehement were his steps and 
his rapid progress. The way he sped over the earth might be com- 

1 O'Curry found this piece in the MS. marked H. 3. 18 in Trinity College, 
Dublin, and has printed it at page 472 of his MS. Materials. Kuno Meyer 
has also edited it from a MS. in the British Museum, full of curious word- 
equivalents or Kennings. (See " Revue Celtique," vol. xiii. p. 221. Sec 
also a fragment of the same story in Kuno Meyer's " Hibernica Minora," 
p. 84.) 

2 Pronounced "Bal-a," and " Al-yinn." 3 In Irish, Lughaitlh, 



i iS LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

pared to the darting of a hawk down a cliff or to wind from off the 
green sea, and his left was towards the land [i.e., he came from the 
south along the shore]. 

"'Go meet him,' said Baile, 'and ask him where he goes, or 
whence he comes, or what is the cause of his haste.' 

" ' From Mount Lcinstcr I come, and I go back now to the North, 
to the mouth of the river Bann ; and I have no news but of the 
daughter of Lewy, son of Fergus, who had fallen in love with Baile 
mac Buain, and was coming to meet him. But the youths of Leinster 
overtook her, and she died from being forcibly detained, as Druids 
and fair prophets had prophesied, for they foretold that they would 
never meet in life, but that they would meet after death, and not 
part for ever. There is my news,' and he darted away from them 
like a blast of wind over the green sea, and they were not able to 
detain him. 

" When Baile heard this he fell dead without life, and his tomb 
and his rath were raised, and his stone set up, and his funeral games 
were performed by the Ultonians. 

" And a yew grew up through his grave, and the form and shape 
of Baile's head was visible on the top of it — whence the place is 
called Baile's Strand [now Dundalk]. 

" Afterwards the same man went to the South to where the maiden 
Aillinn was, and went into her grianan or sunny chamber. 

" ' Whence comes the man whom we do not know ? ' said the 
maiden. 

" ' From the northern half of Erin, from the mouth of the Bann I 
come, and I go past this to Mount Leinster.' 

" | You have news ? ' said the maiden. 

" ' I have no news worth mentioning now, only I saw the Ultonians 
performing the funeral games and digging the rath, and setting up 
the stone, and writing the name of Baile mac Buain, the royal heir 
of Ulster, by the side of the strand of Baile, who died while on his 
way to meet a sweetheart and a beloved woman to whom he had 
given affection, for it was not fated for them to meet in life, or for 
one of them to see the other living,' and he darted out after telling 
the evil news. 

" And Aillinn fell dead without life, and her tomb was raised, etc. 
And an apple tree grew through her grave and became a great tree 
at the end of seven years, and the shape of Aillinn's head was upon 
its top. 

" Now at the end of seven years poets and prophets and visioners 
cut down the yew which was over the grave of Baile, and they made 
a pod's tabid of it, and they wrote the visions and the espousals and 



EARLY USE OF LETTERS 119 

the loves and the courtships of Ulster in it. [The apple tree which 
grew over the grave of Aillinn was also cut down] and in like 
manner the courtships of Leinster were written in it. 

" There came a November eve long afterwards, and a festival was 
made to celebrate it by Art, the son of Conn [of the Hundred Battles, 
High-king of Ireland], and the professors of every science came to 
that feast as was their custom, and they brought their tablets with 
them. And these tablets also came there, and Art saw them, and 
when he saw them he asked for them ; and the two tablets were 
brought and he held them in his hands face to face. Suddenly the 
one tablet of them sprang upon the other, and they became united 
the same as a woodbine round a twig, and it was not possible to 
separate them. And they were preserved like every other jewel in 
the treasury at Tara until it was burned by Dunlang, son of Enna, 
at the time he burnt the Princesses at Tara, as has been said 

' The apple tree of noble Aillinn, 
The yew of Baile— small inheritance — 
Though they are introduced into poems 
Unlearned people do not understand them.' 

and Ailbhe, daughter of Cormac, grandson of Conn [of the Hundred 
Battles] said too 

' What I liken Lumluine to 
Is to the Yew of Baile's rath, 
What I liken the other to 
Is to the Apple Tree of Aillinn.' " 

So far this strange tale. But poetic as it is, it yields — 
unlike most — its chief value when rationalised, for as O'Curry 
remarks, it was apparently invented to account for some in- 
scribed tablets in the reio;n of Kina; Art in the second centurv, 
which had — as we ourselves have seen in the case of so 
many leaves of very old manuscripts at this day — become 
fastened to each other, so that they clung inextricably together 
and could not be separated. 

Now the massacre of the Princesses at Tara happened, 
according to the " Four Masters," in the year 241, when the 
tablets were burnt. Hence one of two things must be the 
case ; the story must cither have originated before that date to 
account for the sticking together of the tablets, or else some 



120 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

one must have invented it long afterwards, that is, must, 
without any apparent cause, have invented a story out of his 
own head, as to how there were once on a time two tablets 
made of trees which once grew on two tombs which were once 
fastened together before Art, son of Conn, and which were 
s^on afterwards unfortunately burnt. A supposition which, 
considering there were then, ex hypothesis no adhering tablets 
to prompt the invention, appears at first sight improbable. 

Brash, who made personal examination of almost every 
Ogam known to exist, and whose standard work on the 
subject reproduces most of the inscriptions discovered up to 
the date of writing, was of opinion that no Ogam monument 
had anything Christian about it, and that if any Christian 
symbol were discovered on an Ogam stone, it must be of later 
date than the Ogam writing. Dr. Graves, however, has 
since shown that Ogam was in some few cases at least used 
over the graves of Christians ; and he believes that all Ogam 
writing is really post-Christian, despite the absence of Christian 
emblems on the stones, and that it belongs to a comparatively 
modern period — " in fact, for the most part, to a time between 
the fifth and seventh century." J Brash's great work was 
supplemented by Sir Samuel Ferguson's, and since that time 
Professor Rhys 2 and Dr. Whitley Stokes have thrown upon 
the inscriptions themselves all the light that the highest 
critical acumen equipped with the completest philological 
training could do, and have, to quote Mr. Macalister, 
" between them reduced to order the confusion which almost 
seemed to warrant the cryptical theories, and have thereby 
raised Ogam inscriptions from the position of being mere 
learned playthings to a place of the highest philological im- 
portance, not only in Celtic but in Indo-European epigraphy." 

1 " Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy," May, 1894. 

2 See " Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland," vol. xxvi. 
p. 263. 



EARLY USE OF LETTERS 121 

He himself — the latest to deal with the subject — waves for the 
present as " difficult — perhaps in some measure insoluble-" — 
all " questions of the time, place, and manner of the develop- 
ment of the Ogham script." J Rhys has traced in certain of 
the inscriptions the influence exercised on the spoken language 
of the Celtic people by an agglutinating pre-Celtic tongue. 2 
This gives us a glimpse at the pre-Aryan languages of tne 
British Isles, which is in the highest degree interesting. 

To me it seems probable that the Irish discovered the use of 
letters either through trade with the Continent or through the 
Romanised Britons, at any time from the first or second century 
onward. But how or why they invented the Ogam alphabet, 
instead of using Roman letters, or else Greek ones like the 
Gauls, is a profound mystery. One thing is certain, namely, 
that the Ogam alphabet — at whatever time invented — is a 
possession peculiar to the Irish Gael, and only to be found 
where he made his settlements. 

1 " Studies in Irish Epigraphy," London, 1897, part i., by R. A. Stewart 
Macalister, who gives a most lucid study of the Ogam inscriptions in the 
Barony of Corcaguiney and of a few more, with a clear and interesting 
preface on the Ogam words and case-endings. 

2 It is thus he explains such Ogam forms as "Ere maqi maqi-Ercias," 
i.e., [the stone] of Ere, son of, etc. But " Ere" is nominative, " maqi " is 
genitive, hence " Ere maqi " must be looked upon as one word, agglu- 
tinated as it were, in which the genitive ending of the "maqi" answers 
for both. As a rule, however, the name of the interred is in the genitive 
case in apposition to " maqi." 



CHAPTER XII 



EARLY IRISH CIVILISATION 



It has been frequently assumed, especially by English writers, 
that the pre-historic Irish, because of their remoteness from 
the Continent, must have been ruder, wilder, and more un- 
civilised than the inhabitants of Great Britain. But such an 
assumption is — to say nothing of our literary remains — in no 
way borne out by the results of archaeological research. The 
contrary rather appears to be the case, that in point of wealth, 
artistic feeling, and workmanship, the Irish of the Bronze Age 
surpassed the inhabitants of Great Britain. 

When we read such accounts as that, for example, in the 
Book of Ballymote, of Cormac mac Art, taking his seat at the 
assembly in Tara, all covered with gold and jewels, we must 
not set it down to the perfervid imagination of the chronicler 
without first consulting what Irish archaeology has to say 
upon the point. The appearance of Cormac (king of Ireland 
in the third century, and perhaps greatest of pre-Christian 
monarchs), is thus described. "Beautiful," says the writer, 
quoting probably from ancient accounts now lost, " was the 
appearance of Cormac in that assembly, flowing and slightly 
curling was his golden hair. A red buckler with stars and 
animals of gold and fastenings of silver upon him. A crimson 



122 



EARLY IRISH CIVILISATION 123 

cloak in wide descending folds around him, fastened at his 
neck with precious stones. A torque of gold around his 
neck. A white shirt with a full collar, and intertwined with 
red gold thread upon him. A girdle of gold, inlaid with 
precious stones, was around him. Two wonderful shoes of 
gold, with golden loops upon his feet. Two spears with 
golden sockets in his hands, with many rivets of red bronze. 
And he was himself, besides, symmetrical and beautiful of form, 
without blemish or reproach." The abundance of gold orna- 
ment which Cormac is here represented as wearing, is no 
mere imagination of the writer's. It is founded upon the 
undoubted fact that of all countries in the West of Europe 
Ireland was pre-eminent for its wealth in gold. How much 
wealthier was Ireland than Great Britain may be imagined 
from the fact that while the collection in the British Museum 
of pre-historic gold from England, Scotland, and Wales 
together amounted a couple of years ago to some three dozen 
ounces, that in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin weighs five 
hundred and seventy ounces. And yet the collection in the 
Academy contains only a small part of the gold-finds made in 
Ireland, for before 1861, when the new law about treasure- 
trove came into force, great numbers of gold objects are known 
to have been sold to the goldsmiths and melted down. The 
wealth of Ireland in gold — some of it found and smelted in the 
Wicklow mountains x — must have at an early period deter- 

1 In the Irish Annals gold is said to have been first smelted in Leinster. 
As late as the last century native gold was discovered on the confines of 
Wicklow and Wexford, and nuggets of 22, 18, 9, and 7 ounces are 
recorded as having been found there. Mr. Coffey quotes a most interesting 
account by a Mr. Weaver, director of the works established there by the Irish 
Government before the Union to look for gold. "The discovery of native 
gold in Ballinvally stream, at Croghan Kinshella," says Mr. Weaver, "was 
at first kept secret, but being divulged, almost the whole population of the 
immediate neighbourhood flocked in to gather so rich a harvest, actually 
neglecting at the time the produce of their own fields. This happened about 
the autumn of the year 1796, when several hundreds of people might be 
seen daily assembled digging and searching for gold in the banks and bed 
of the stream. Considerable quantities were thus collected ; this heme, as 



124 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

mined continental trade in its direction, and we have seen that 
Tacitus reported its harbours as being better known through 
trade than those of Great Britain, or, on the most unfavour- 
able reading of the passage, as being " known by commerce 
and merchants." 1 This is also borne out by archaeologists. 
Professor Montelius, who has traced a close connection in 
pre-historic times between Scandinavia and the West of 
Europe, 2 regards much of the pre-historic gold found in the 
northern countries as Irish. Speaking of certain gold orna- 
ments found in Fiinen, which show, according to him, marked 
Irish influence, he writes: "Gold ornaments like these have 
not been discovered elsewhere in Scandinavia, while a great 
number of similar ornaments have been found in the British- 
Isles, especially in Ireland, whose wealth of gold in the Bronze 
Age is amazing." Again he writes, " As certain of the gold 

it subsequently proved the most productive spot ; and the populace 
remained in undisturbed possession of the place for nearly six weeks, 
when Government determined to commence active operations. . . . 
Regular stream works were soon established, and up to the unhappy time 
of the rebellion in May, 1798, when the works were destroyed, Government 
had been fully reimbursed its advances ; the produce of the undertaking 
having defrayed its own expenses and left a surplus in hand." The total 
amount of gold collected from this place in the last hundred years is 
valued at about £30,000. This particular spot had been probably overlooked, 
as Mr. Coffey remarks, by the searchers of earlier days, but no doubt other 
auriferous streams in the Wicklow mountains had given up their gold 
long since in pre-historic times to the ancient workers. [See Coffey's 
" Origins of Pre-historic Ornament in Ireland," p. 40.) Dr. Frazer, on the 
other hand, does not believe that any great part of the gold found in 
Ireland is indigenous, and talks of Spain and South Russia, and gold 
plundered from Britain. But if this be the case, what an enormous pre- 
historic trade Ireland must have carried on, or what a powerful invader 
she must have been to come by such quantities of gold ! [See Dr. Frazer's 
paper in R. I. A. Proceedings, May, 1896). He has since supplemented 
this by another in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries in 
which he leans to the opinion that the Roman aurei, the coins plundered 
from the Britons, were the real source of Irish gold. 

1 See above, p. 21, note 3. 

2 " Verbindungen zwischen Skandinavien und dem westlichen Europa 
vor Christi Geburt " (" Archiv fur Anthropologic," vol. xix., quoted by Mr. 
George Coffey in his " Origins of Pre-historic Ornament in Ireland," p. 63), 



EARLY IRISH CIVILISATION 125 

objects found in Denmark have been introduced demonstrably 
from the British Islands, probably from Ireland, the thought 
is obvious — is not a great part of the other gold objects found 
in Southern Scandinavia also of Irish origin, and of the 
Bronze Age there ? . . . for this island [Ireland] was, during 
the Bronze Age, one of the lands of Europe richest in gold." 
"No other country in Europe possesses so much manufactured 
gold belonging to early and mediaeval times," writes Mr. 
Ernest Smith. 1 

It is true that the Irish Celts, despite their mineral wealth, 
never minted coin, a want which has been adduced to prove 
a lack of civilisation on their part. But, as Mr. Coffey points 
out, coinage is a comparatively late invention ; the Egyptians 
— for all their civilisation — never possessed a native coinage, 
and even such ancient trading cities as Carthage and Gades did 
not strike coins until a late period. " A little reflection," says 
Professor Ridgeway, " shows us that it has been quite possible 
for peoples to attain a high degree of civilisation without 
feeling any need of what are properly termed coins." " The 
absence of coinage," adds Mr. Coffey, " does not necessarily 
imply the absence of a currency system, and Professor Ridge- 
way has shown that the ancient Irish possessed a system of 
of currency or values, and a standard of weights." 

A most interesting paper by Mr. Johnson, a Dublin 
jeweller, recently read before the Royal Irish Academy, 2 has 



1 "Notes on the Composition of Ancient Irish Gold and Silver Orna- 
ments," by Ernest A. Smith, Assoc. R.S.M., F.C.S, Royal School of Mines, 
London, R. I. A. Transactions, May, 1896. 

2 " Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy," May, 1896. The tools and 
appliances necessary for producing the fine gold fibulae of a private 
collector, which Mr. Johnson examined, would be, he says, " a furnace, 
charcoal, crucible, mould for ingot, flux, bellows, several hammers, anvil, 
swage anvil, swages, chisels for ornament, sectional tool for producing 
concentric rings." On one of them, he says, "there is a thickened edge 
and a beautiful moulded ornament on the outer side only, which quite 
puzzles one as to how it was produced without suggesting what are con- 
sidered to be modern tools." 



126 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

shown with the authority due to an expert, the marvellous 
skill with which the pre-historic Irish worked their gold, and 
the wealth of proper appliances which they must have possessed 
in order to turn out such unique and admirable results. 1 

The workmanship of Irish bronze articles is also very fine, 
and fully equal to that of Britain, while Green well considers 
their clay urns and food-vessels superior to the British. In 
Ireland he says the urns, "and especially the food vessels, are 
of better workmanship, and more elaborately and tastefully 
ornamented than in most parts of Britain. Many of the food 
vessels found in Argyleshire, and in other districts in the South- 
west of Scotland, as might be perhaps expected, are very 
Irish in character, and may claim to be equally fine in taste 
and delicate in workmanship with those of Ireland." 2 

The brilliant appearance of Cormac mac Art when presiding 
over the assembly at Tara, covered with gold and jewels, 
receives enhanced credibility from the proofs of early Irish 
wealth and culture that I have just adduced. Let us glance 
at Tara itself, as it existed in the time of Cormac, and see 
whether archaeology can throw any light upon the ancient 
accounts of that royal hill. It was round this hill that the 
great Feis, or assemblage of the men of all Ireland, took place 
triennially,3 with a threefold purpose — to promulgate laws 
universally binding upon all Ireland ; to test, purge, and I 



1 A splendid find of gold ornaments made last year near the estuary of 
the Foyle river, of a golden model of a boat, evidently a votive offering, 
fitted with seat, mast, oars, and punting poles, an exquisitely-wrought gold 
collar, decorated in relief with the most beautiful embossed work, torques, 
neckchains, etc., has been dated from internal evidences as work of the 
second century, the neck-chains being clearly provincial Roman work of 
that date. It is to be regretted that these exquisite articles have found 
their way to the British Museum, where they will be practically lost, 
instead of being added to the unique Irish collection in Dublin, to which 

hey properly belong. 

2 Greenwell's "British Barrows," p. 62, quoted by Coffey. 

3 O'Donovan, in his preface to " The Book of Rights," gives some reasons 
for believing that it may have been held only septennially. 



EARLY IRISH CIVILISATION 127 

sanction the annals and genealogies of Ireland, in the presence 
of all men, so that no untruth or flaw might creep in ; and, 
finally, to register the same in the great national record, in 
later times called the Saltair of Tara, so that cases of disputed 
succession might be peacefully settled by reference to this 
central authoritative volume. The session of the men of 
Ireland thus convened took place on the third day before 
Samhain — November day — and ended the third day after it. 
We are told that Cormac, who presided over these assemblies, 1 
had ten persons in constant waiting upon his person, who hardly 
ever left him. These were a prince of noble blood, a druid, 
a physician, a brehon, a bard, a historian, a musician, and three 
stewards. And Keating tells us that the very same arrangement 
was observed from Cormac's time — in the third century — to 
the death of Brian Boru in the eleventh, the only alteration 
being that a Christian priest was substituted for the druid. 

To accommodate the chiefs and princes who came to the 
great Feis, Cormac built the renowned Teach Miodhchuarta 
[Toch Mee-coo-ar-ta] which was able to accommodate a 
thousand persons, and which was used at once for a house of 
assembly, a banqueting hall, and a sleeping abode. We have 
two accounts of this hall and of the other monuments of Tara, 
written, the one in poetry, the other in verse, some nine 
hundred years ago. The prose of the Dinnseanchus describes 
accurately the lie of the building, " to the north-west of the 
eastern mound." " The ruins of this house " — it lay in ruins 
then as now — " are thus situated : the lower part to the north 
and the higher part to the south ; and walls are raised about it 
to the east and to the west. The northern side of it is 
enclosed and small, the lie of it is north and south. It is in 
the form of a long house with twelve doors upon it, or 
fourteen, seven to the west and seven to the east. This was 
the great house of a thousand soldiers." 2 Keating, follow- 

1 Sec the Forus Feasa, p. 354 of O'Mahony's translation. 
8 See Petrie's " Antiquities of Tara Hill," p. 129. 



128 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

ing his ancient authorities, graphically describes the Tara 
assembly. 

" The nobles," he writes, " both territorial lords and captains of 
bands of warriors, were each man of them, always attended by his 
own proper shield-bearer. Again their banquet-halls were arranged 
in the following manner, to wit, they were long narrow buildings 
with tables arranged along both the opposite walls of the hall ; then 
along these side walls there was placed a beam, in which were fixed 
numerous hooks (one over the seat destined for each of the nobles), 
and between every two of them there was but the breadth of 
one shield. Upon these hooks the shanachy hung up the shields 
of the nobles previously to their sitting down to the banquet, at 
which they all, both lords and captains, sat each beneath his own 
shield. However, the most honoured side of the house was 
occupied by the territorial lords, whilst the captains of warriors x 
were seated opposite to them at the other. The upper end of the 
hall was the place of the ollavs, while the lower end was assigned to 
the attendants and the officers in waiting. It was also prescribed 
that no man should be placed opposite another at the same table, 
but that all, both territorial lords and captains, should sit with their 
backs towards the wall, beneath their own shields. Again, they 
never admitted females into their banquet-halls ; these had a hall of 
their own in which they were separately served. It was likewise the 
prescribed usage to clear out the banquet-hall previous to serving 
the assembled nobles therein. And no one was allowed to remain 
in the building but three, namely, a Shanachy and a bolsgaire [mar- 
shal or herald], and a trumpeter, the duty of which latter officer was 
to summon all the guests to the banquet-hall by the sound of his 
trumpet-horn. He had to sound his horn three times. At the first 
blast the shield-bearers of the territorial chieftains assembled round 
the door of the hall, where the marshal received from them the 
shields of their lords, which he then, according to the directions of 
the shanachy, hung up each in its assigned place. The trumpeter 
then sounded his trumpet a second time, and the shield-bearers of 
the chieftains of the military bands assembled round the door of the 
banquet-hall, where the marshal received their lords' shields from 
them also, and hung them up at the other side of the hall according 
to the orders of the shanachy, and over the table of the warriors. 
The trumpeter sounded his trumpet the third time, and thereupon 

1 This seems a plain allusion to the Fenians, believed in Ireland to have 
been Cormac's militia. 



EARLY IRISH CIVILISATION 129 

both the nobles and the warrior chiefs entered the banquet-hall, and 
then each man sat down beneath his own shield, and thus were all 
contests for precedency avoided amongst them." 

These accounts of the Dinnseanchus and of Keating, taken 
from authorities now lost, will be likely to receive additional 
credit when we know that the statements made nine hundred 
years ago, when Tara had even then lain in ruins for four 
centuries, have been verified in every essential particular by 
the officers of the Ordnance Survey. The statement in the 
Dinnseanchus made nearly nine hundred years ago that there 
were either six or seven doors on each side, shows the condition 
into which Tara had then fallen, one on each side being so 
obliterated that now, also, it is difficult to say whether it was a 
door or not. The length of the hall, according to Petrie's 
accurate measurements, was seven hundred and sixty feet y and 
its breadth was nearly ninety. There was a double row of 
benches on each side, running the entire length of the hall, 
which would give four rows of men if we remember that the 
guests were all seated on the same side of the tables, and 
allowing the ample room of three feet to each man, thij would 
just give accommodation to a thousand. In the middle of the 
hall, running down all the way between the benches, there 
was a row of fires, and just above each fire was a spit 
descending from the roof, at which the joints were roasted. 
There is a ground plan of the building, in the Book of Leinster, 
and the figure of a cook is rudely drawn with his mouth open, 
and a ladle in his hand to baste the joint. The king sat at 
the southern end of the hall, and the servants and retainers 
occupied the northern. 

The banqueting-hall and all the other buildings at Tara 
were of wood, nor is the absence of stone buildings in itself 
a proof of low civilisation, since, in a country like Ireland, 
abounding in timber, wood could be made to answer everv 
purpose — as in point of fact it does at this day over the greater 
part of America, and in all northern countries where forests 

I 



130 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

are numerous. 1 All or most Irish houses, down to the period 
of the Danish invasions, were constructed of wood, or of wood 
and clay mixed, or of clay and unmortared stones, and their 
strongholds were of wooden pallisades planted upon clay earth- 
works. This is the reason why so few remains of pre-historic 
buildings have come down to us, but it is no reason for believing 
that, as in Cormac's banquet-hall, rude palatial effects were not 
often produced. An interesting poem in the Dialogue of the 
Sages, from the Book of Lismore, describes the house of the 
Lady Crede, said to have been a contemporary of Finn mac 
Cumhail in the third century. 2 Though the poem may not 
itself be very old, it no doubt embodies many ancient truths, 
and is worth quoting from. A poet comes to woo the lady, and 
brings this poem with him. Finn accompanies him. When they 
reached her fortress " girls, yellow-haired, of marriageable age, 
showed on the balconies of her bowers." The poet sang to her — 

" Happy is the house in which she is 
Between men and children and women, 
Between druids and musical performers, 
Between cupbearers and doorkeepers. 3 

1 Bede mentions, if I remember rightly — I forget where — a church 
built in the north of Britain, more Scotorum, robore secto, " of cleft 
oak ? in the Irish fashion." The Columban churches were also of 
wood and wattles, contemporaneous with which were the beehive 
cells of uncemented stone, probably less warm and less comfortable 
than the thatched houses. " Ce que nous savons des anciens edifices 
irlandais," says M. Jubainville, "donne le droit d'affirmer que la plupart 
des constructions elevees a Emain macha [i.e., Emania, the capital of 
Ulster, and of the Red Branch heroes, two miles west of Armagh] pendant 
le periode epique de l'histoire d'Irlande, ont du etre en bois ; cependant il 
y avait ete employe au moins quelques pierres." Angus the Culdee has 
a noble verse relating to the stones of Emania, the finest, perhaps, in the 
whole Saltair na rann, " Emania's palace has vanished, yet its stones still 
remain, but the Rome of the western world is now Glendaloch of the 
gatherings," " is Ruam iarthair beatha Gleann dalach da locha." 

2 See " Silva Gadelica," p. in, and O'Curry's MS. Materials, p. 595. 

3 Aibhinn in tech in ata,^ 
Idir fira is maca is mna, 
Idir dhruidh ocus aes ceoil, 
Idir dhailiumh is dhoirseoir. 



EARLY IRISH CIVILISATION 131 

Between equerries without fear, 
And distributors who divide [the fare], 
And, over all these, the command belongs 
To Crede of the yellow hair. 



The colour [of her house] is like the colour of lime, 
Within it are couches and green rushes (?) 
Within it are silks and blue mantles, 
Within it are red, gold, and crystal cups. 

Of its many chambers the corner stones, 
Are all of silver and yellow gold, 
In faultless stripes its thatch is spread, 
Of wings of brown, and of crimson red. 

Two door posts of green I see, 

Door not devoid of beauty, 

Of carved silver, long has it been renowned, 

In the lintel that is over the door. 

Crede's chair is on your left hand, 
The pleasantest of the pleasant it is, 
All over, a blaze z of Alpine gold 
At the foot of her beautiful couch. 

A splendid couch in full array 
Stands directly above the chair ; 
It was made by Tuile in the East, 
Of yellow gold and precious stones. 

There is another bed on your right hand 
Of gold and silver without defect, 
With curtains with soft [pillows], 
With graceful rods of golden-bronze. 

An hundred feet spans Crede's house 
From one angle to the other, 
And twenty feet are fully measured 
In the breadth of its noble door. 

Its portico is covered, too, 

With wings of birds, both yellow and blue, 

Its lawn in front and its well 

Of crystal and of Carmogel." 

"Thus O'Curry translates casair as if he had taken it to be I 
O'Grady translates " an overlay of Elpa's gold.'' 



1 32 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

The houses of the ancient Irish were either like Cormac's 
banqueting-hall and Creole's house, built quadrilaterally ot 
felled trees or split planks planted upright in the earth, and 
thatched overhead, or else, as was most usually the case, they 
were cylindrical and made of wickerwork, with a cup-shaped 
roof, plastered with clay and whitewashed. The magnificent 
dimensions of Cormac's palace, verified as they are by the 
careful measurements of the Ordnance Survey — a palace 
certainly erected in pagan times, since Tara was deserted for 
ever about the year 550 — bear evidence, like our wealth of 
beautifully-wrought gold ornaments, and the superior work- 
manship of our surviving articles of bronze and clay, to a high 
degree of civilisation and culture amongst the pre-Christian 
Irish ; I have here adduced them as bearing indirect evidence 
in favour of the probability that a people so civilised would 
have been likely to have seized on the invention of writing 
when they first came in contact with it, and would have kept 
their annals and genealogies all the more accurately from the 
very fact that they were evidently so advanced in other 
matters. 



CHAPTER XIII 

ST. PATRICK AND THE EARLY MISSIONARIES 

Even supposing the Ogam alphabet to have been used in 
pre-Christian times, though it may have been employed by 
ollavs and poets to perpetuate tribal names and genealogies, 
still it was much too cumbrous and clumsy an invention to 
produce anything deserving the name of real literature. It is, 
so far as we know, only with the coming of Patrick that 
Ireland may be said to have become, properly speaking, a 
literary country. The churches and monasteries established 
by him soon became so many nuclei of learning, and from 
the end of the fifth century a knowledge of letters seems to 
have entirely permeated the island. So suddenly does this 
appear to have taken place, and so rapidly does Ireland seem 
to have produced a flourishing literature of laws, poems, and 
sagas, that it is very hard to believe that the inhabitants 
had not, before his coming, arrived at a high state of 
indigenous culture. This aspect of the case has been 
recently strongly put by Dr. Sigerson. " I assert," said 
he, speaking of the early Brehon laws, at the revision of 
which in a Christian sense St. Patrick is said to have 

assisted, " that, speaking biologically, such laws could not 

j 3:3 



154 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

emanate from any race whose brains have not been subject to 
the quickening influence of education for many generations." 1 

The usual date assigned for St. Patrick's landing in Ireland 
in the character of a missionary is 432, and his work among 
the Irish is said to have lasted for sixty years, during which 
time he broke down the idol Crom Cruach, burnt the 
books of the druids at Tara, ordained numerous missionaries 
and bishops, and succeeded in winning over to Christianity 
a great number of the chiefs and sub-kings, who were in their 
turn followed by their tribesmen. 

St. Patrick did not work alone, nor did he come to Ireland 
as a solitary pioneer of a new religion ; he was accompanied, 
as we learn from his life in the Book of Armagh, by a 
multitude of bishops, priests, deacons, readers, and others, 2 
who had crossed over along with him for the service. Several 
were his own blood relations, one was his sister's son. Many 
likely youths whom he met on his missionary travels he con- 
verted to Christianity, taught to read, tonsured, and afterwards 
ordained. These new priests thus appointed worked in all 
directions, establishing churches and getting together congre- 
gations from amongst the neighbouring heathen. Unable to 
give proper attention to the teaching of the youths whom he 
elected as his helpers, so long as he himself was engaged in 
journeying through Ireland from point to point, he, after about 
twenty years of peripatetic teaching, established at Armagh 
about the year 450 the first Christian school ever founded in 
Ireland, the progenitor of that long line of colleges which made 
Ireland famous throughout Europe, and to which, two hundred 
years later, her Anglo-Saxon neighbours flocked in thousands. 3 

1 " Contemporary Review." 

2 So Tirechan, in Book of Armagh, fol. 9. " Et secum fuit multitudo 
episcoporum sanctorum et presbiterorum, et diaconorum, ac exorcis- 
tarum, hostiarium, lectorumque, necnon filiorum quos ordinavit." 

3 So many English were attracted to Armagh in the seventh century 
that the city was divided into three wards, or thirds, one of which was 
called the Saxon Third. 



ST PATRICK AND EARLY MISSIONARIES 135 

The equipments of these newly-made priests was of the 
scantiest. Each, as he was sent forth, received an alphabet- 
of-the-faith or elementary-explanation of the Christian doc- 
trine, frequently written by Patrick himself, a "Liber ordinis," 
or " Mass Book," a written form for the administration of 
the sacraments, a psaltery, and, if it could be spared, a copy of 
the Gospels. 1 A good-sized retinue followed Patrick in all his 
journeyings, ready to supply with their own hands all things 
necessary for the new churches established by the saint, as 
well as to minister to his own wants. He travelled with his 
episcopal coadjutor, his psalm-singer, his assistant priest, his 
judge — originally a Brehon by profession, whom he found most 
useful in adjudicating on disputed questions — -a personal cham- 
pion to protect him from sudden attack and to carry him 
through floods and other obstacles, an attendant on himself, 
a bellringer, a cook, a brewer, a chaplain at the table, two 
waiters, and others who provided food and accommodation for 
himself and his household. He had in his company three 
smiths, three artificers, and three ladies who embroidered. 
His smiths and artificers made altars, book-covers, bells, and 
helped to erect his wooden churches ; the ladies, one of them 
his own sister, made vestments and altar linens. 2 

St. Patrick was essentially a man of work and not of letters^ 
and yet it so happens that he is the earliest Irish writer of 
whom we can say with confidence that what is ascribed to him 
is really his. And here it is as well to say something about 
the genuineness of St. Patrick's personality and the authen- 
ticity of his writings, for the opinion started by Ledwich has 
gone abroad, and has somehow become prevalent, that St. 
Patrick's personality is nearly as nebulous as that of King 
Arthur or of Finn mac Ciimhail, and at the best is made up of 
a number of little Patricks lumped into one great .one. That 

1 See Dr. Healy's "Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars," p. 64. 

2 There is a curious poem on St. Patrick's family of artificers quoted in 

the " Four Masters " under A.D. 278. 



136 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

there was more than one Patrick J is certain, 2 and that the 
great Saint Patrick who wrote the "Confession" may have got 
credit in the early Latin and later Irish lives for the acts of 
others, is perfectly possible, but that most of the essential 
features of his life are true, is beyond all doubt, and we 
have a manuscript 1091 years old, apparently copied from 
his own handwriting, and containing his own confession and 
apologia. 

How this exquisite manuscript, consisting of 216 vellum 
leaves, written in double columns, has happily been preserved 
to us, we shall not lose time in inquiring ; but how its exact 
date has been ascertained through what Dr. Reeves has charac- 
terised as "one of the most elegant and recondite demonstrations 

1 There were no less than twenty-two saints of the name of Colum, yet 
that does not detract one iota from the genuineness of the life of the great 
Colum, called Columcille. There were fourteen St. Brendans, there 
were twenty-five St. Ciarans, and fifteen St. Brigits. 

How Ledwich — who, however, as O'Donovan remarks, looks at every- 
thing Irish with a jaundiced eye — could have written down St. Patrick 
as a myth is inconceivable, in the face of the fact that he was already 
recognised in the sixth century as a great saint. The earliest mention of 
him is probably St. Columba's subscription to the Book of Durrow, in 
the sixth century, which runs : " Rogo beatitudinem tuam Sancte Presbyter 
Patrici, ut quicumque hunc libellum manu tenuerit Columbae Scriptoris, 
qui hoc scripsi . . . met evangelium per xii. dierum spatium." Here we 
see a prayer already addressed to him as a national saint. 

2 This is clearly shown by the 56th chap, of Tirechan's life fol. i6aa 
of the Book of Armagh, where he makes the following statement : 
"XIII. Anno Teothosii imperatoris a Celestino episcopo papa Romae 
Patricius episcopus ad doctrinam Scottorum mittitur. Qui Celestinus 
XLVII episcopus fuit a Petro apostolo in urbe Roma. Paladius episcopus 
primus mittitur [in the year 430, according to Bede] qui Patricius alio 
nomine appellabatur, qui martirium passus est apud Scottos, ut tradunt 
sancti antiqui. Deinde Patricius secundus ab anguelo Dei, Victor nomine, 
et a Celestino papa mittitur, cui Hibernia tota credidit, qui earn pene 
totam bab [titzavit] ." Also it is to be observed that St. Patrick's life 
according to the usual computations, covers 120 years, which seems an 
improbably long period. According to the Brussels Codex of Muirchu 
Maccu Machteni's life, he died a ftassionc Domini nostri 436 ; the author, no 
doubt, imagined the passion to have taken place in a.u. 34 ; this would fix 
Patrick's death as in 470. See p. 20 of Father Hogan's " Documenta 
ex Libro Armachano," and with this Tirechan also agrees, saying 



ST. PATRICK AND EARLY MISSIONARIES 137 

which any learned society has on record, is worth mentioning." 
The Rev. Charles Graves, the present Bishop of Limerick, 
made a thorough examination of the whole codex when, after 
many vicissitudes and hair-breadth escapes from destruction, it 
had been temporarily deposited in the Royal Irish Academy. 
Knowing, as O'Curry pointed out, that it was the custom for 
Irish scribes to sign their own names, with usually some par- 
ticulars about their writing, at the end of each piece they 
copied, he made a careful search and discovered that this 
had actually been done in the Book of Armagh, and in 
no less than eight places, but that on every spot where it 
occurred it had been erased for some apparently inscrutable 
reason, with the greatest pains. In the last place but one, 

"A passione autem christi colleguntur anni ccccxxxvi. usque ad 
mortem Patricii." Tirechan curiously contradicts himself in saying, 
" Duobus autem vel v annis regnavit Loiguire post mortem Patricii, omnis 
autem regni illius tempus xxxvi. ut putamus," in chap, ii., and in chap, 
liii. he says that Patrick taught (i.e., in Ireland) for 72 years ! He 
evidently compiled badly from two different documents. 

The only cogent reason for doubting about the reality of St. Patrick is 
that he is not mentioned in the Chronicon of Prosper, which comes down 
to the year 455, and which ascribes the conversion of Ireland to Palladius, 
as does Bede afterwards. It is the silence of Prosper and Bede about 
any one of the name of Patrick which has cast doubt upon his existence. 
A most ingenious theory has been propounded by Father E. O'Brien in 
the " Irish Ecclesiastical Record " to explain this. According to him Patrick 
zs the Palladius of Prosper and Bede. The earliest lives, and the scholiast 
on Fiacc's hymn, tell us that Patrick had four names ; one of these was 
Succat "qui est deus belli,'" but Palladius is the Latin of Patrick's name 
(succat). The Deus belli could only be rendered into Latin by the words 
Arius Martius or Palladius, these being the only names drawn from war- 
gods, and of these Palladius was the commonest. It seems not unlikely 
that the Patrick who wrote the " Confession " and converted Ireland is the 
Palladius of Becle and Prosper, who also converted Ireland. The Paladius 
of Tirechan who failed to convert Ireland is evidently another person 
altogether. 

It is to be remarked that although Becle never mentions Patrick in his 
"Ecclesiastical History," nevertheless in the " Martyrology " — found by 
Mabillon at Kheims, and attributed to Bede, Patrick is distinctly com- 
memorated — ■ 

" Patricius Domini servus conscendit ad aulam, 
Cuthbertus ternas tenuit denasque Kalendas." 



133 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

however, where the colophon occurred, the process of erasure 
had been less thorough than in the others, and after Ions: con- 
sideration, and treatment of the erasure with gallic acid and 
spirits of wine, Dr. Graves discovered that the words so care- 
fully rubbed out were Pro Fcrdomnacho ores, " Pray for Fer- 
domnach." Turning to the other places, he found that the 
erased words in at least one other place were evidently the 
same. This settled the name of the scribe ; he was Ferdom- 
nach. The next step was to search the " Four Masters," who 
record the existence of two scribes of that name who died at 
Armagh, one in 726 and the other in 844. One of these it 
must have been who wrote the Book of Armagh, — but 
which ? This also Dr. Graves discovered, with the greatest 
ingenuity. At the foot of Fols. 52-6 he was, with extreme 
difficulty, able to decipher the words . . . ach hunc ... 
e dictante . . . ach herede Patricii scripsit. From these stray 
syllables he surmised that Ferdomnach had written the book 
at the bidding of some Archbishop of Armagh whose name 
ended in ach. For this the Psalter of Cashel, Leabhar Breac, 
and " Four Masters," were consulted, and it was found that 
one Archbishop Senaach died in 609 ; it could not then have 
been by his commands the book was written by the first 
Ferdomnach ; then came, after a long interval, Faoindea- 
lach, who died in 794, Connmach, who died in 806, 
and Torbach, who held the primacy for one year after 
him. On examining the hiatus it was found that the 
letter which preceded the fragment ach could not have been 
either an / or an m, but might have been a />, thus putting out 
of the question the names of Connmach and Faoindealach. 
Besides the vacant space before the ach was just sufficient to 
admit of the letters Tor, but not Conn, much less Faoindea. 
The conclusion was obvious : the passage ran, Ferdomnach 
hunc librum e dictante Torbach herede Patricii scripsit, cc Fer- 
domnach wrote this book at the dictation (or command) of 
Torbach, Patrick's heir (successor)." Torbach, as we have 



ST. PATRICK AND EARLY MISSIONARIES 139 

seen, became Archbishop in 806 and died in 807. The date 
was in this way recovered. 1 

I have been thus particular in tracing the steps by which 
the age of this manuscript came to light, because it contains the 
earliest piece of certain Irish literature we have, the "Confession 
of St. Patrick." Now the usually accepted date of St. Patrick's 
death, as given in the Annals of Ulster, is 492, about three hundred 
years before that, and Ferdomnach, the scribe, after copying it, 
added these words : " Hue usque volumen quod patricius manu 
conscripsit sua. Septimadecima martii die translatus est patricius ad 
ccelos, i.e., "thus far the volume which Patrick wrote with his own 
hand. On the seventeenth day of March was Patrick translated 
to the heavens." It would appear highly probable from this 
that Ferdomnach actually copied from St. Patrick's autograph, 2 
which had become so defaced or faded during the three previous 
centuries, that the scribe has written in many places incertus 
liber hie, " the book is uncertain here," or else put a note 3 of 

1 For the full particulars of this acute discovery, which sets the date of 
the codex beyond doubt or cavil, see Dr. Graves' paper read before the 
Royal Irish Academy, vol. iii. pp. 316-324, and a supplementary paper 
giving other cogent reasons, vol. iii. p. 358. According to O'Donovan, the 
" Four Masters " antedate here by five years. It is worth remarking that 
Torbach, who caused this copy to be made, was himself a noted scribe. 
His death in 807 is recorded in the " Four Masters" and in the "Annals 
of Ulster," we read " Torbach, son of Gorman, scribe, lector, and Abbot of 
Armagh, died." 

2 There are several passages omitted in the Book of Armagh, which 
are found in an ancient Brussels MS. of the eleventh century. These were 
probably omitted from the Book of Armagh because they were unde- 
cipherable. The Brussels MS. and others contain nearly as much again as it, 
and there are many proofs that this extra matter is not of later or spurious 
origin ; thus Tirechan refers to Patrick's own records, " ut in scn'plionesua 
affirmai" for evidence of a fact not mentioned in the " Confession" as given 
in the Book of Armagh, but which is supplied by the other MSS., namely, that 
Patrick paid the price of fifteen " souls of men," or slaves, for protection 
on his missionary journey across Ireland. The frequent occurrence of 
deest, ct cetera, et rcliqua, show that the Armagh copy of the "Confession" 
is nothing like a full one. The Brussels MS. formerly belonged to the 
Irish monastery of Win /.burg. 

3 See p. 36, note 2. 



140 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

interrogation to indicate that he was not sure whether he had 
copied the text correctly. It will be seen from this that there 
was not the slightest trace of any concealment on the part of 
the scribe as to who he himself was, or what he was copying ; 
there was no attempt to antedate his own writing, or to 
suggest that his copy was an original. But long after the 
scribe's generation had passed away and the origin of his work 
been forgotten, the volume which at first had been regarded 
only as a fine transcript of early documents, became known as 
" Canon Phadraig," or Patrick's Testament, and popular 
opinion, relying on the colophon " thus far the book which 
Patrick wrote with his own hand," set down the work as the 
saint's autograph. The belief that the volume was St. 
Patrick's own autograph of course enhanced enormously its 
value, and with it the dignity of its possessors, and the 
unscrupulous plan was resolved on of erasing the signature' of 
the actual scribe. The veneration of the public was thus 
secured by interested persons at the cost of truth, and the 
deception probably lasted so long as the possession of such 
a volume brought with it either credit or dignity. This same 
volume I has another interest attaching to it, so that we 
cannot but felicitate ourselves that out of the wreck of so 
many thousands of volumes, it has been spared to us — it was 
brought to Brian Boru, when in the year 1004 he went upon 
his royal progress through Ireland, the first man of the race 
of Eber who had attained the proud position of monarch 
or Ard-righ for many centuries, and he, by the hand or 
his secretary, made an entry which may still be seen to- 
day, confirming the primacy of Armagh, and re-granting to it 

1 The other contents of the Book of Armagh, besides the Patrician 
documents, are a copy of the New Testament, enriched with concordance 
tables and illustrative matter from Jerome, Hilary, and Pelagius. It 
includes the Epistle to the Laodiceans attributed to St. Paul, but it is 
mentioned that Jerome denied its authenticity. There are some pieces 
relating to St. Martin of Tours, and the Patrician pieces — the Life, the 
Collectanea, the Book of the Angel, and the " Confession." 



ST. PA TRICK AND EARL Y MISSIONARIES 141 

the episcopal supremacy of Ireland which it had always 
enjoyed. 1 

It is now time to glance at St. Patrick's " Confession," as it 
is usually called, though in reality it is much more of the 
nature of an apologia pro vita sua. The evidence in favour of 
its authenticity is overwhelming, and is accepted by such 
cautious scholars as Stokes, 2 Todd, and Reeves, no first-rate 
critic, with perhaps one exception, having so far as I know 
ever ventured to question its genuineness. It is impossible to 
assign any motive for a forgery, and casual references to 
Decuriones, Slave-traffic, and to the " Brittaniae," or Britains, 
bear testimony to its antiquity. Again, the Latin in which it 
is written is barbarous in the extreme, the periods are rude, 
sometimes ungrammatical, often nearly unintelligible. He 
begins by telling us that his object in writing this confession 
in his old age was to defend himself from the charge of 
presumptuousness in undertaking the work he tried to perform 
amongst the Irish. He tells us that he had many toils and 
perils to surmount, and much to endure while engaged upon 
it. He never received one farthing for all his preaching and 
teaching. The people indeed were generous, and offered 
many gifts, and cast precious things upon the altar, but he 
would not receive them lest he might afford the unrighteous 
an occasion to cavil. He was still encompassed about with 
dangers, but he heeded them not, looking to the success which 
had attended his efforts, how " the sons of the Scots and the 

1 " Sanctus Patricus iens ad coelum mandavit totum fructum laboris sui 
tarn baptismi tarn causarum quam elemoisinarum deferendum esse 
apostolicae urbi quae scotice nominatur ardd-macha. Sic reperi in Biblio- 
thics Scotorum. Ego scripsi, id est Caluus Perennis, in conspectu Briain 
imperatoris Scotorum, et quod scripsi finituit pro omnibus regibus Maceriac 
[i.e., Cashel]." " Calvus Perennis " is the Latin translation of Mael-suthain, 
Brian's scribe and secretary. For a curious story about this Mael-suthain, 
see p. 779 O'Curry's MS. Materials. 

a See above p. 112, note 2. It has been printed in Haddan and Stubb's, 
"Councils," etc., vol. ii. p. 296, and also admirably in Gilbert's facsimiles 
of National MSS. 



142 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

daughters of their princes became monks and virgins of Christ," 
and "the number of holy widows and of continent maidens was 
countless." It would be tedious were he to recount even a 
portion of what he had gone through. Twelve times had his 
life been endangered, but God had rescued him, and brought 
him safe from all plots and ambuscades and rewarded him for 
leaving his parents, and friends, and country, heeding neither 
their prayers nor their tears, that he might preach the gospel 
in Ireland. He appeals to all he had converted, and to all who 
knew him, to say whether he had not refused all gifts — nay, it 
was he himself who gave the gifts, to the kings and to their 
sons, and oftentimes was he robbed and plundered of everything, 
and once had he been bound in fetters of iron for fourteen days 
until God had delivered him, and even still while writing this 
confession he was living in poverty and misery, expecting 
death or slavery, or other evil. He prays earnestly for one 
thing only, that he may persevere, and not lose the people 
whom God has given to him at the very extremity of the 
world. 

Unhappily this " Confession" is a most unsatisfying composi- 
tion, for it omits to mention almost everything of most interest 
relating to the saint himself and to his mission. What floods 
of light might it have thrown upon a score of vexed questions, 
how it might have set at rest for ever theories on druidism, 
kingship, social life, his own birthplace, his mission from Rome, 1 
his captors. Even of himself he tells us next to nothing, 
except that his father's name was Calpornus, 2 the son of 

1 It has often been said that the life of the saint in the Book of Armagh 
ignores the Roman Mission. But while the life of Muirchu Maccu 
Machteni does ignore it, Tirechan's his contemporary's, life, in the same 
book, distinctly acknowledges it, in these words, "deinde Patricius se- 
cundus ab anguelo dei, Victor nomine, et a Cclestino papa mittitur cui 
Hibernia tota credidit, qui earn pene totam bap[titzavit]." (See chap. 56 of 
Tirechan's life.) 

2 In Irish he is usually called Son of Alprann or Alplann, the C of 
Calpornus being evidently taken as belonging to the Mac, thus Mac Cal- 
prainn became Mac Alprainn. In the Brussels Codex of Muirchu Maccu 



ST PATRICK AND EARLY MISSIONARIES 143 

Potitus, the son of Odissus, a priest, and that he dwelt in the 
vicus or township of Benaven Taberniae ; he had also a small 
villa not far off, where he tells us he was made captive at 
the age of about sixteen years. Because his Christian training 
was bad, and he was not obedient to the priests when they 
admonished him to seek for salvation, therefore God punished 
him, and brought him into captivity in a strange land at the 
end of the world. When he was brought to Ireland he tells 
us that his daily task was to feed cattle, and then the love of 
God entered into his heart, and he used to rise before the sun 
and pray in the woods and mountains, in the rain, the hail, and 
the snow. Then there came to him one night a voice in his 
sleep saying to him " Your ship is ready," and he departed and 
went for two hundred miles, until he reached a port where 
he knew no one. This was after six years' captivity. The 
master of the ship would not take him on board, but afterwards 
he relented just as Patrick was about to return to the cottage 
where he had got lodging. He succeeded at last in reaching 
the home of his parents in Ttritannis [/.<?., in some part of 
Britain, including Scotland], and his parents besought him, 
now that he had returned from so many perils, to remain with 
them always. But the angel Victor came in the guise of a 
man from Ireland, and gave him a letter, in which the voice of 
the Irish called him away, and the voices of those who dwelt 
near the wood of Focluth called him to walk amongst them, 
and the spirit of God, too, urged him to return. 1 

Machteni's life, however, he is called Alforni tilius, and the place of his 
birth is called Ban navem thabur indecha, supposed to be Killpatrick, near 
Dumbarton, in Scotland, which is evidently a corrupt ion of his own 
Bannaven Tabernias, which seems to mean River-head Tavern ; it may be 
from the two words navem thabur that St. Fiacc's hymn says that he w.i i 
born in nemthur. Patrick himself only gives us two generations of his 
ancestry, and it is very significant of Irish ways to find Flann of 
Monasterboice, running it up to fourteen ! 

1 It is worth while to transcribe this passage as a fair specimen of St. 
Patrick's style and latinity. " Et ibi scilicet in sinunoctis virum venientem 
quasi de Hiberione cui nomen Victorious, cum aspistulis innumerabilibus 



144 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

He says nothing of his training, or his ordination, or his long 
sojourn in Gaul, or of St. Germanus, with whom he studied 
according to the " Lives," but he alludes incidentally to his 
wish to see his parents and his native Britain, and to revisit the 
brethren in Gaul, and to see the face of God's saints there ; but 
though he desired all this, he would not leave his beloved 
converts, but would spend the rest of his life amongst them. 1 

From this brief resume of the celebrated "Confession" it will 
be seen that it is the perfervid outpouring of a zealous early 
Christian, anxious only to clear himself from the charges of 
worldliness or carelessness, and absolutely devoid of those 
appeals to general interest which we meet with in most of 
such memoirs, but there is a vein of warm piety running 
through the whole, and an abundance of scriptural quotations 
— all, of course, from the ante-Hieronymian or pre-Vulgate 
version, another proof of antiquity — which has caused it to be 
remarked that a forger might, perhaps, write equally bad Latin, 
but could hardly "forge the spirit that breathes in the language 
which is the manifest outpourings of a heart like unto the 
heart of St. Paul." 2 

There are two other pieces of literature assigned to St. 
Patrick, as well as the "Confession"; these are the "Epistle to 
Coroticus " in Latin, and the " Deer's Cry " in Irish. The 

vidi ; et dedit mihi unam ex his et, legi principium aspistolas continentem 
' Uox Hiberionacum.' Et dum recitabam principium aspistolce, putabam 
enim ipse in mente audire vocem ipsorum qui erant juxta silvam Focluti 
[in the county Mayo] quae est prope mare occidentale. Et sic exclam- 
averunt : ' Rogamus te sancte puer ut venias et adhuc ambulas inter nos.' 
Et valde compunctus sum corde, et amplius non potui legere. Et sic 
expertus [i.e. experrectus] sum. Deo gratias quia post plurimos annos 
praestitit illis Dominus secundum clamorum illorum " (Folio 23, 66, Book 
of Armagh, p. 126 of Father Hogan's Bollandist edition). 

1 The " Confession " ends with a certain rough eloquence : " Christus 
Dominus pauper fuit pro nobis ; ego vero miser et infelix, et si opes 
voluero jam non habeo ; neque me ipsum judico quia quotidie spero aut 
internicionem aut circumveniri, aut redigi in servitatem, sive occassio 
cujus-libet. . . Et haec est confessio mea antequam moriar." 

2 Dr. Healy's " Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars," p. 68. 



ST. PATRICK AND EARLY MISSIONARIES 145 

Epistle is not found in the Book of Armagh, but it is found 
in other MSS. as old as the tenth or eleventh century, and 
bears such close resemblance in style and language to the 
" Confession," whole phrases actually occurring in both, that it 
also has generally been regarded as genuine. 1 There is some 
doubt as to who Coroticus was, but he seems to have been a 
semi-Christian king of Dumbarton who, along with some Scots, 
i.e.) Irish, and the Southern Picts who had fallen away from 
Christianity, raided the eastern shores of Ireland and carried 
off a number of St. Patrick's newly-converted Christians, 
leaving the white garments of the neophytes stained with 
blood, and hurrying into captivity numbers upon whose fore- 
heads the holy oil of confirmation was still glistening. The 
first letter was to ask Coroticus to restore the captives, and 
when this request was derided the next was sent, excommuni- 
cating him and all his aiders and abettors, calling upon all 
Christians neither to eat nor drink in their company until 
they had made expiation for their crimes. Patrick himself 
had, he here explains, preached the gospel to the Irish nation 
for the sake of God, though they had made him a captive and 
destroyed the men-servants and maids of his father's house. 
He had bsen born a freedman and a noble, the son of a 
decurio or prefect, but he had sold his nobility for others and 
regretted it not. His lament over the loss of his converts is 
touching : " Oh ! my most beautiful and most loving brothers 
and children whom in countless numbers I have begotten in 
Christ, what shall I do for you ? Am I so unworthy before 
God and men that I cannot help you ? Is it a crime to have 
been born in Ireland ? 2 And have we not the same God as 
they have ? I sorrow for you, yet I rejoice, for if ye are taken 
from the world ye are believers through me, and are gone to 
Paradise." 

1 It is printed by Hacldan and Stubbs, " Councils," etc., vol. ii. p. 314. 
3 This is certainly the first time on record that this question 
r reputed since in so many different forms— was asked. 

K 



146 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

The "Cry of the Deer," or "Lorica," as it is also called, is in 
Irish. The saint is said to have made it when on his way to 
visit King Laoghaire [Leary] at Tara, and the assassins who 
had been planted by the king to slay him and his companions 
thought as he chanted this hymn that it was a herd of deer 
that passed them by, and thus they escaped. The metre of 
the original is a kind of unrhymed or half-rhymed rhapsody, 
called in Irish a Rosg, and is perfectly unadorned. The 
language, however, though very old, has of course been 
modified in the process of transcription. Patrick calls upon 
the Trinity to protect him that day at Tara, and to bind to 
him the power of the elements. 

I bind me to-day * 

God's might to direct me, 
God's power to protect me, 
God's wisdom for learning, 
God's eye for discerning, 
God's ear for my hearing, 
God's word for my clearing, 
God's hand for my cover, 
God's path to pass over, 
God's buckler to guard me, 
God's army to ward me, 

Against snares of the devils, 

Against vices, temptations, 

1 See the original in Windsch's u Irische Texte," I. p. 53, and Todd's 
" Liber Hymnorum " — 

" Atomrigh indiu niurt De dom luamaracht 
Cumachta De dom chumgabail 
Ciall De domm imthus 
Rose De dom reimcise, 
Cluas De dom estecht 
Briathar De dom erlabrai, 
Lam De domm imdegail 
Intech De dom remthechlas. 
Sciath De dom ditin 
Sochraite De domm anucul 
Ar intledaib demna 
Ar aslaigthib dualche 
Ar cech nduine miduthrastar dam, 

icein ocus i n-ocus 

i n-uathed ocus hi sochaide," etc, 




ST PATRICK AND EARLY MISSIONARIES 147 

Against wrong inclinations, 
Against men who plot evils 

To hurt me anew, 
Anear or afar with many or few. 
• • • 

Christ near, Christ here, 
Christ be with me, 
Christ beneath me, 
Christ within me, 
Christ behind me, 
Christ be o'er me, 
Christ before me, 
Christ in the left and the right, 
Christ hither and thither, 
Christ in the sight, 
Of each eye that shall seek me," x etc. 

In the Book ot Armagh, in the last chapter of Tirechan's 
life, St. Patrick is declared to be entitled to four honours in 
every church and monastery of the island. One of these 
honours was that the hymn written by St. Seachnall, his 
nephew, in praise of himself, was to be sung in the churches 
during the days when his festival was being celebrated, and 
another was that " his Irish canticle " was to be always sung, 2 
apparently all the year through, in the liturgy, but perhaps only 
during the week of his festival. The Irish canticle is evidently 

1 Thus translated almost literally by Dr. Sigerson, " Bards of the Gael 
and Gall," p. 138. This is not the only poem attributed to St. Patrick, 
several others are ascribed to him in the "Tripartite Life," and a MS. in the 
Bibliotheque Royale contains three others. Eight lines of one of them is 
found in the Vatican Codex of Marianus Scotus and are given by Zeuss 
in his " Grammatica Celtica," p. 961, second edition. The lines there given 
refer to St. Brigit. There is also a rann attributed to St. Patrick quoted 
by the "Four Masters," and the "Chronicon Scotorum" attributes to him a 
rann on Bishop Ere. 

2 " Canticum ejus scotticum semper canere," which a marginal note in 
the book explains as Ymnus Comauulo, which Father Hogan interprets as 
frotcctio Clamoris, adding " ac proinde synonymavoci Faith Fiada," which 
has been interpreted clamor custodis or "The Guardsman's Cry "by Stokes. 
The poem, then, was extant in the seventh century, was attributed to St. 
Patrick, and was sung in the churches — a strong argument for its 
authenticity. 



148 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

this " Lorica," which was, as we see from this notice in the 
Book of Armagh, believed to be his in the seventh century, 
and it has been sung under that belief from that day almost to 
our own. 1 

The other hymn, the singing of which at his festival is 
alluded to as one of St. Patrick's u honours," was composed 
by Seachnall [Shaughnal], 2 a nephew of St. Patrick's, in lauda- 
tion of the saint himself. It is a very interesting piece of 
rough latinity, and is generally regarded as genuine. The 
occasion of its composition deserves to be told, for it casts a 
ray of light on the prudential and self-restrained side of St. 
Patrick's character, which no doubt contributed largely to his 
success when working in the midst of his wavering converts. 
Seachnall said that Patrick's preaching would be perfect if he 
only insisted a little more on the necessity of giving, for then 
more property and land would be at the disposal of the Church 
for pious uses. This remark of his nephew was repeated to 
St. Patrick, who was very much annoyed at it, and said 
beautifully, that " for the sake of charity he forbore to preach 
charity," and intimated that the holy men who should come 
after him might benefit by the offerings of the faithful which 
he had left untouched. Then Seachnall, grieved at having 
thus. pained his uncle, and anxious to win his regard again, 

1 " Even to this day," says Dr. Healy, in " Ireland's Ancient Schools and 
Scholars," p. 77, " the original is chanted by the peasantry of the south 
and west in the ancestral tongue, and it is regarded as a strong shield 
against all dangers natural or supernatural." I, myself, however, in 
collecting the ''Religious Songs of Connacht," have found no trace of this, 
and I am not sure that the learned Bishop of Clonfert, led astray by 
Petrie, is not here confounding it with the " Marainn Phadraig," which 
mysterious piece is implicitly believed to be the work of St. Patrick, 
and is still recited all over the west, with the belief that there is a peculiar 
virtue attached to it. I have even known money to have been paid for its 
recital in the west of Gal way, as a preventive of evil. For this curious 
piece, which is to me at least more than half unintelligible, see my 

'Religious Songs of Connacht." It appears to have been founded upon 
an incident similar to that recorded by Muirchu Maccu Machteni, book 
. chap. 26. 

2 Of Dunshaughlin recti Dunsaughnil (Domhnach Seachnaill) in Meath, 



ST. PATRICK AND EARLY MISSIONARIES 149 

composed a poem of twenty-two stanzas each beginning with a 
different letter, with four lines of fifteen syllables in each verse. 1 
When he had done this he asked permission of Patrick to 
recite to him a poem which he had composed in praise of a 
holy man, and when Patrick said that he would gladly hear 
the praises of any of God's household, the poet adroitly 
suppressing Patrick's name which occurs in the first verse, 
recited it for him. Patrick was pleased, but interupted the 
poet at one stanza when he said that the subject of his lauda- 
tions was maximus in regno ccelorumf " the greatest in the 
kingdom of heaven," asking how could that be said of any 

1 As this was probably the first poem in Latin ever composed in Ireland, 
it deserves some consideration. It is a sort of trochaic tetrameter cata- 
lectic, of the very rudest type. The ictus, or stress of the voice, which is 
supposed to fall on the first syllable of the first, third, fifth, and seventh 
feet, seldom corresponds with the accent. The elision of "m" before a vowel 
is disregarded, no quantities are observed, and the solitary rule of prosody 
kept is that the second syllable of the seventh foot is always short, with 
the exception of one word, indutus, which the poet probably pronounced 
as indutus. The third verse runs thus, with an evident effort at vowel 
rhyme ("Liber Hymnorum," vol. i. p. n). 

" Beati Christi custodit mandata in omnibus 
Cujus opera refulgent clara inter homines." 

Muratori printed this hymn, from the so-called Antiphonary of Bangor, 
a MS. of the eight century preserved in the Ambrosian Library. The 
rude metre is that employed by Hilary in his hymn beginning— 

" Ymnum dicat turba fratrum, ymnum cantus personet," 

which, as Stokes points out, is the same as that of the Roman soldiers, 
preserved in Suetonius, 

"Caesar Gallias subegit, Nicomedes Coesarem." 

The internal evidence of the antiquity of this hymn is " strong," says 
Stokes, "first, the use of the present tense in describing the saint's actions ; 
secondly, the absence of all reference to the miracles with which the 
Tripartite and other lives are crowded ; and, thirdly, the absence of all 
allusion to the Roman mission on which many later writers from Tirechan 
downwards insist with much persistency." We may then, I think, receive 
this hymn as authentic. 

2 " Maximus namque in regno caelorum vocabitur, 
Qui quod verbis docet sacris factis adimplet bonis ; 
Bono procedit exemplo formamque fidelium 
Mundoque in corde habet ad Deum iklueiam." 



150 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

man. Maxhnus, ingeniously replied Seachnall, does not here 
mean "greatest," but only "very great." He then disclosed to 
his uncle that he himself was the object of the poem, and 
asked — like all bards — for the reward for it, whereupon Patrick 
promised that to all who recited the hymn piously morning 
and evening, God in His mercy might give the glory of 
heaven. "I am content with that award," said the poet, "but 
as the hymn is long and difficult to be remembered I wish you 
would obtain the same reward for whosoever recites even a part 
of it." Whereupon St. Patrick promised that the recitation 
of the last three verses would be sufficient, and his nephew 
was satisfied, having proved himself the first poet of Christian 
Ireland, and having obtained such a reward for his verses as 
neither bard nor ollav had ever obtained before him. It was 
probably this same Seachnall who was the author of the much 
finer hymn of eleven verses which used to be sung in the old 
Irish churches at communion — 

" Sancti venite 

Christi corpus sumite, 

Sanctum bibentes 

Quo redempti sanguinem. 

Salvati Christi 

Corpore et sanguine, 
A quo refecti 
Laudes dicamus Deo. 

Hoc Sacramento 

Corporis et sanguinis 

Omnes exuti 

Ab inferni faucibus," etc. 

The legend in the Leabhar Breac has it that this hymn was 
first chanted during the holy communion by the angels in 
his church, on the reconciliation between himself and Saint 
Patrick, whence the origin of chanting it during the com- 
munion service. 

The Book of Armagh contains the two earliest lives of 
the national saint that we have, probably the two earliest 






ST PA TRICK AND EARL V MISSIONARIES 1 5 1 

biographies of any size ever composed in Ireland. They are 
written in rude Latin, with a good deal of Irish place-names 
and Irish words intermixed, the first by one Muirchu Maccu 
Machteni, 1 who tells us that he wrote at the instigation of 
Aed, bishop of Sletty, who, as we know from the " Four 
Masters," died about 698, and the second by Tirechan, who 
says he received his knowledge of the saint from the lips and 
writings of Bishop Ultan, 2 his tutor, who died in 656, and 
who, supposing him to have been seventy or eighty years old 
at the time of his death, must have been born only eighty or 
ninety years after the death of St. Patrick himself. Both of 
these writers appear to have had older memoirs to draw on, 
for Muirchu says that many had before them endeavoured to 
write the history of St. Patrick from what their fathers and 
those who were ministers of the Word from the beginning 
had told them, though none had ever succeeded in producing a 
proper biography, 3 and in Tirechan's life of him in the Book 
of Armagh — an evident patchwork — we read that all his 
godly doings had been brought together4 and collected by the 

1 In the " Martyrology of Tallaght " this curious name is written Mac 
hui Machteni, i.e., the son of the grandson of Machtenus, or Muirchu, i.e., 
Murrough, descendant of Machtenus, and the Leabhar Breac has this 
note at the name of Muirchu : " civitas ejus in uib Foelan, i.e., mac hui 
Mathcene" thereby giving us to understand that he was a native of what 
is the present county of Waterford. Maccumachteni is not a surname, 
for these were not introduced into Ireland for three centuries later. 

2 " Omnia quae scripsi a principio libri hujus scitis quia in vestris 
regionibus gesta sunt, nizi de eis pauca inveni in utilitatem laboris mei 
a senioribus multis, acab illo Ultano episcopo Conchubernensi qui nutrivit 
me, retulit sermo ! " 

3 " Multos jam conatos esse ordinare narrationem istam secundum 
quod patres eorum et qui ministri ab initio fuerunt sermonis tradiderunt 
illis ; sed propter difficillimum narrationis opus diversasque opiniones et 
plurimorum plurimas suspiciones nunquam ad unum certumque historiae 
tramitem pervenisse." 

4 "Omnia in Deo gesta ab antiquis peritissimis adunata atque collecta 
sunt;" and again : "Post exitum Patricii alumpni sui valde ejusdem libros 
conscripserunt ;" but this ma}' mean that they made copies of the books 
left behind him. 



152 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

most skilful of the ancients. The first of these lives consists 
of two books containing twenty-eight and thirteen short 
chapters, respectively, the second, Tirechan's, of one book 
containing fifty-seven chapters, in addition to which there are 
a number of minor notes referring to St. Patrick in Latin and 
in Irish, which Ferdomnach, who transcribed the book in 807, 
appears to have taken from other old lives or memoirs of 
the saint. The Irish portions of these notes are of peculiar 
interest, as showing what the Irish language was, as written 
about the year 800. x 

If it is genuine the earliest life of Patrick ever written 
would probably be the brief metrical life ascribed to Fiacc 
of Sletty, the sixth or seventh in descent from Cathaoir 
[Cauheer] Mor, who was king of Leinster at the close of 
the second century. 2 His mother was a sister of Dubhthach's 
[Duv-hach], the chief poet and Brehon of Ireland, who, we are 
told, helped St. Patrick to review and revise the Brehon Laws. 
Fiacc was a youthful poet in Dubhthach's train at Tara. 
Afterwards he was tonsured by St. Patrick, became Bishop 
of Sletty, and on Patrick's death is said to have written 
his life, and not forgetful of his former training, to have 
written it in elaborate verse.3 So famous a critic as Zimmer 
believed half the poem to be genuine, but Thurneysen rejects 

1 Here is a specimen : " Dulluid patricc othemuir hicrich Laigen con- 
rancatar ocus dubthach mucculugir uccdomnuch mar criathar la auu 
censelich. Aliss patricc dubthach imdamnae .n. epscuip diadesciplib 
dilaignib idon fer soer socheniuil cenon cenainim nadip ru becc nadi- 
promar bedasommae, toisclimm fer oinsetche dunarructhae actoentuistiu," 
which would run some way thus in the modern language : " Do luid 
(i.e., Chuaidh) Padraic 6 Theamhair i gcrich Laighean go rancadar [fein] 
agus Dubhthach Mac Lugair ag Domhnach Mor Criathair le uibh Ceinn- 
sealaigh. Ailis (i.e., fiafruighis) Padraic Dubhthach um damhna (i.e., 
adhbhar) easboig d' a dheiscioblaibh, eadhoin fear saor soi-chineail, gan 
on gan ainimh (i.e., truailiughadh), nar 'bh ro bheag [agus] nar 'bh 
romhor, a shaidhbhreas (?). Toisg [riachtanus] Horn fear aon seitche 
[mna] d'a nach rugadh acht aon tuistui (gein)," etc. 

2 For Cathaoir Mor, see p. 30. 

s The metre was called Cctal nothi, Thurneysen's " Mittelirische Vers- 
lehren," p. 63. It scarcely differs in most parts from Little Rannaigheacht. 



ST. PATRICK AND EARLY MISSIONARIES 153 

it because it does not fall in with his theories of Irish 
metre. 1 

But the longest and most important life of St. Patrick: 
is that known as the Tripartite, or Triply-divided Life, 
which is really a series of three semi-historical homilies, or 
discourses, which were probably delivered in honour of the 
saint on the three festival days devoted to his memory, that is, 
the Vigil, the Feast itself, on March 17th, and the day after, 
or else the Octave. This Tripartite life, which is a fairly 
complete one, is written in ancient Irish, with many passages 
of Latin interspersed. The monk Jocelin, who wrote a life 
of the saint in the twelfth century, tells us that St. Evin 2 
— from whom Monasterevin, in Oueen's County, is called, 
a saint of the early sixth century — wrote a life of Patrick 
partly in Latin and partly in Gaelic, and Colgan, the learned 
Franciscan who translated the Tripartite in his " Trias 
Thaumaturga,"3 believed that this was the very life which 
St. Evin wrote. Colgan found the Tripartite life in three very 
ancient Gaelic MSS., procured for him, no doubt, by the un- 
wearied research of Brother Michael O'Clery in the early part of 
the seventeenth century, which he collated one with the other, 
and of which he gives the following noteworthy account : — 

" The first thing to be observed is that it has been written by its 
first author and in the aforesaid manuscript, partly in Latin, partly 



1 See " Keltische Studien," Heft ii., and the " Revue Celtique." The 
first verses run thus : — 

" Genair Patraicc in Nemthur 
Is ed atfet hi scelaib 
Maccan se mbliadan deac 
In tan dobreth fo cleraib. 

Succat a ainm itubrad 
Ced a athair ba fissi 
Mac Calpairn tiiaic Otide 
Hoa deochain Odissi." 

a He was tenth in descent from that Owen Mor who wrested half the 
sovereignty of Ireland from Conn of the Hundred Battles. 

3 I.e., "The wonder-working Three," containing the lives of Patrick, 
Brigit, and Columcille, translated by Colgan from Irish into Latin. 



154 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

in Gaelic, and this in very ancient language, almost impenetrable 
by reason of its very great antiquity, exhibiting not only in the same 
chapter, but also in the same line, alternate phrases now in the Latin, 
now in the Gaelic tongue. In the second place, it is to be noticed 
that this life, on account of the very great antiquity of its style, 
which was held in much regard, used to be read in the schools of 
our antiquarians in the presence of their pupils, being elucidated 
and expounded by the glosses of the masters, and by interpretations 
of and observations on the more abstruse words ; so that hence it 
is not to be wondered at that some words— which certainly did 
happen — gradually crept from these glosses into the texts, and thus 
brought a certain colour of newness into this most ancient and 
faithful author, some things being turned from Latin into Gaelic, 
some abbreviated by the scribes, and some altogether omitted." 

Colgan further tells us that, "of the three MSS. above 
mentioned, the first and chief is from very ancient vellums of 
the O'Clerys, antiquarians in Ulster ; the second from the 
O'Deorans, of Leinster ; the third taken from I know not 
what codex ; and they differ from each other in some respects ; 
one relating more diffusely what is more close in the others, 
and one relating in Latin what in the others was told in 
Gaelic ; but we have followed the authority of that which 
relates the occurrences more diffusely and in Latin." O'Curry 
discovered in the British Museum a copy of this life, made in 
the fifteenth century, and it has since been admirably edited by 
Dr. Whitley Stokes, who, however, does not believe for philo- 
logical and other reasons, that it could have been written before 
the middle of the tenth century. If so it is no doubt a 
compilation of all the pre-existing lives of the saint, and it 
mentions distinctly that six different writers, not counting 
Fiacc the poet, had collected the events of St. Patrick's life 
and his miracles, amongst whom were St. Columcille, who 
died in 592, and St. Ultan, who died in 656. x It is hardly 

1 Also St. Aileran the Wise, whose " Fragments " are published by 
Migne ; St. Adamnan, the author of the " Life of Columcille " ; St. 
Ciaran of Belach-Duin ; and St. Colman. Jocelyn says that Benignu?, 
who died in 468, wrote another life of Patrick, but of it nothing is known. 



ST. PATRICK AND EARLY MISSIONARIES 155 

necessary, however, to say that in the matter of all anonymous 
Gaelic writings like the present, it is difficult to decide with 
any certainty as to age or date. The occurrence, indeed, of 
very old forms, shows that the sentences containing those old 
forms were first written at an early period ; the occurrence of 
more modern forms, however, is no proof that the passages 
containing them were first written in modern times, for the 
words may have been altered by later transcribers into the 
language they spoke themselves ; nor are allusions to events 
which we know were later than the date of an alleged writer, 
always conclusive proofs that the work which contains them 
cannot be his work, for such allusions constantly creep into 
the margin of books at the hands of copyists, especially if those 
books were — as Colgan says the Tripartite life was — annotated 
and explained in schools. In cases of this kind there is always 
considerable latitude to be allowed to destructive and con- 
structive criticism, and at the end matters must still remain 
doubtful. r 

So much for the more important lives of St. Patrick, the 
first known litterateur of Ireland. 

1 Here is a short passage from the Tripartite, which will show the 
language in which it is written : " Fecht ann occ tuidhecht do Patraic 
do Chlochur antuaith da fuarcaib a thren-fher dar doraid and, i.e., Epscop 
mac Cairthind. Issed adrubart iar turcbail Patraic : uch uch. Mu 
Debroth, ol Patraic ni bu gnath in foculsin do rad duitsiu. Am senoir 
ocus am lobur ol Epscop Mac Cairthind," which would run some way 
thus in the modern language : " Feacht [uair] do bhi ann, ag tigheacht 
do Phadraig go Clochar (i gcondae, Tir-Eoghain) on tuaidh, d' iomchair 
a threan-fhear e thar sruth do bhi ann, eadhoin Easbog Mac Cairthind. 
Is eadh adubhairt tar eis Padraig do thogbhail " Uch, uch ! " Mo Dhebh- 
roth [focal do bhi ag Padraig, ionnann agus " dar mo laimh " no mar 
sin], nior ghnath an focal sin do radh duit-se. Taim im sheanoir agus 
im lobhar ar Easbog Mac Cairthind. See O'Curry MS. Materials, p. 59S. 



CHAPTER XIV 



ST. BRIGIT 



St. Brigit was — after St. Patrick himself — probably the most 
noted figure amongst Irish Christians in the fifth century. 
She must have attained her extraordinary influence through 
sheer ability and intellectuality, for she appears to have been 
the daughter of a slave-woman, 1 employed in the mansion of 
a chief called Dubhthach [Duv-hach, or DufFach], who was 
himself tenth in descent from Felimidh, the lawgiver monarch 
of Ireland in the second century. The king's wife, jealous of 
her husband's liking for his slave, threatened him with these 
words, " Unless thou sellest yon bondmaid in distant lands I 
will exact my dowry from thee and I will leave thee," and so 
had her driven from the place and sold to a druid, in whose 
house her daughter, Dubhthach's offspring, soon afterwards saw 
the light. She was thus born into slavery, though not quite 
a slave ; for Dubhthach, in selling the mother into slavery, 
expressly reserved for himself her offspring, whatever it 
might be. She must have been, at least, early inured to 
hardship, as St. Patrick had been. The druid, however, did 

1 Cogitosus, who probably wrote in the beginning of the eighth 
century, makes no allusion to her slave-parentage, but this was to be 
expected. 
156 



ST BRIG IT i 57 

not prevent her from being baptized. She grew up to be a 
girl of exceeding beauty, and many suitors sought her in 
marriage. She returned to her father's house, but refused all 
offers of matrimony. She aroused the jealousy of her father's 
wife, as her mother had done before her, and Dubhthach, 
indignant at her unbounded generosity with his goods, decided 
upon selling her to the king of North Leinster. Her father's 
abortive attempt to get rid of her on this occasion is thus 
quaintly described in her Irish life in the Leabhar Breac. 

" Thereafter," says the life, " Dubhthach and his consort were 
minded to sell the holy Brigit into bondage, for Dubhthach liked 
not his cattle and his wealth to be dealt out to the poor, and that is 
what Brigit used to do. So Dubhthach fared in his chariot and 
Brigit along with him. 

" Said Dubhthach to Brigit, ' Not for honour or reverence to thee 
art thou carried in a chariot, but to take thee, to sell thee to grind 
the quern for Dunlang mac Enda, King of Leinster.' 

"When they came to the King's fortress Dubhthach went in to 
the king, and Brigit remained in her chariot at the fortress door. 
Dubhthach had left his sword in the chariot near Brigit. A leper 
came to Brigit to ask an alms. She gave him Dubhthach's sword. 

"Said Dubhthach to the King, 'Wilt thou buy a bondmaid, 
namely, my daughter ? ' says he. 

" Said Dunlang, ' Why sellest thou thine own daughter ? ' 

" Said Dubhthach, ' She stayeth not from selling my wealth and 
from giving it to the poor.' 

" Said the King, ' Let the maiden come into the fortress/ 

" Dubhthach went to Brigit, and was enraged against her because 
she had given his sword to the poor man. 

"When Brigit came into the King's presence the King said to 
her, ' Since it is thy father's wealth that thou takest, much more 
wilt thou take my wealth and my cattle and give them to the poor.' 

"Said Brigit, 'The Son of the Virgin knoweth if I had thy might, 
with all Leinster, and with all thy wealth, I would give them to the 
Lord of the Elements.' 

" Said the King to Dubhthach, ' Thou art not fit on either hand 
to bargain about this maiden, for her merit is higher before God 
than before men,' and the King gave Dubhthach an ivory-hiltcd sword 
[Claideb dct), et sic liberata est sancta Virgo Brigita a captivititatc.'" 

f See Stokes, " Three Middle Irish Homilies." 



158 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

She at length succeeded in assuming the veil of a nun at 
the hands of a bishop called Mucaille, along with seven virgin 
companions. With these she eventually retired into her 
father's territory and founded a church at Kildare, beside an 
ancient oak-tree, which existed till the tenth century, and 
which gives its name to the spot. 1 Even, at this early 
period Kildare seems to have been a racecourse, and St. Brigit 
is described in the ancient lives as driving across it in her 
chariot. 

It is remarkable that there is scarcely any mention of St. 
Brigit in the lives of St. Patrick, although, according to the 
usual chronology they were partly contemporaries, St. Brigit 
having become a nun about the year 467, and St. Patrick 
having lived until 492. About the only mention of her in the 
saint's life is that which tells how she once listened to Patrick 
preaching for three nights and days, and fell asleep, and as she 
dreamt she saw first white oxen in white corn-fields, and then 
darker ones took their place, and lastly black oxen. And 
thereafter, she beheld sheep and swine, and dogs and wolves 
quarrelling with each other, and upon her waking up, St. 
Patrick explained her dream as being symbolical of the history 
of the Irish Church present and future. The life of Brigit 
herself in the Book of Lismore tells the vision somewhat 
differently : 

" ' I beheld,' said she, to Patrick, when he asked her why she had 
fallen asleep, ' four ploughs in the north-east which ploughed the 
whole island, and before the sowing was finished the harvest was 
ripened, and clear well-spring's and shiny streams came out of the 
furrows. White garments were on the sowers and ploughmen. I 
beheld four other ploughs in the north which ploughed the island 
athwart and turned the harvest again, and the oats which they had 
sown grew up at once and were ripe, and black streams came out of 
the furrows, and there were black garments on the sowers and on the 
ploughmen.' " 



Cill-dara, the " Church of the Oak-tree," now Kildare. 



ST. BRIG IT 159 

This vision Patrick explained to her, saying — 

" ' The first four ploughs which thou beheldest, those are I and 
thou, who sow the four books of the gospel with a sowing of faith and 
belief and piety. The harvest which thou beheldest are they who 
come unto that faith and belief through our teaching. The four 
ploughs which thou beheldest in the north are the false teachers and 
the liars which will overturn the teaching which we have sown.' " 

St. Brigit's small oratory at Kildare, under the shadow of her 
branching oak, soon grew into a great institution, and within 
her own lifetime two considerable religious establishments 
sprang up there, one for women and the other for men. She 
herself selected a bishop to assist her in governing them, and 
another to instruct herself and her nuns. Long before her 
death, which occurred about the year 525, a regular city and a 
great school rivalling the fame of Armagh itself, had risen 
round her oak-tree. Cogitosus, himself one of the Kildare 
monks, who wrote a Latin life of St. Brigit at the desire of the 
community, gives us a fine description of the great church of 
Kildare in his own day, which was evidently some time prior 
to the Danish invasion at the close of the eighth century, 1 but 
how long before is doubtful. He tells us that the church 
was both large and lofty, with many pictures and hangings, and 
with ornamental doorways, and that a partition ran across the 
breadth of the church near the chancel or sanctuary : 

"At one of its extremities there was a door which admitted the 
bishop and his clergy to the sanctuary and to the altar ; and at the 



1 He himself says, "Et quis sermone explicare potest maximum decorem 
hujus ecclesiae et innumera illius civitatis qui dicemus miracula . . . [hie] 
nullus carnalis adversarius nee eoncursus timetur hostium, sed civitas est 
refugii tutissima . . . et quis ennumerare potest diversas turbas et in- 
numerabiles populos de omnibus provinciis affluentes, alii ad epularum 
abundantiam, alii languid] propter sanitates, alii ad spectaculum turbarum, 
alii eum magnis donis venientes ad solemnitatem Nativitatis S. Brigitae 
qua; in die Calendarum est," etc. These are the evident outcome of the 
piping times of peace which Ireland enjoyed in the seventh and eighth 
centuries. It would have been impossible to have written in this way after 
the close of the eighth century. See chap. 36 of Cogitosus's life, " Trias 
Thaumaturga," p. 524 of the Louvain edition. 



160 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

other extremity on the opposite side there was a similar door by 
which Brigit and her virgins and widows used to enter to enjoy the 
banquet of the Body and Blood of Christ. Then a central partition 
ran down the nave, dividing the men from the women, the men 
being' on the right and the women on the left, and each 
division having its own lateral entrance. These partitions did 
not rise to the roof of the church, but only so high as to serve 
their purpose. The partition at the sanctuary or chancel was formed 
with boards of wood decorated with pictures and covered with linen 
hangings which might, it seems, be drawn aside at the consecration, 
to give the people in the nave a better view of the holv mysteries." 1 

The two institutions — nuns and monks — planted by St. 
Brigit continued long to flourish side by side, and Kildare is 
the only religious establishment in Ireland, says Dr. Healy, 
which down to a comparatively recent period preserved the 
double line of succession, of abbot-bishops and of abbesses. The 
annalists always took care to record the names of the abbesses 
with the same accuracy as those of the abbots, and to the last 
the abbesses as successors of St. Brigit, were credited with, in 
public opinion, and probably enjoyed in fact, a certain 
supremacy over the bishops of Kildare themselves. 

Amongst other occupations the monks and scholars of Kildare 
seem to have given themselves up to decorative art, and a 
school of metal work under the supervision of Brigit's first 
bishop soon sprang into existence, producing all kinds of 
artistically decorated chalices, bells, patens, and shrines ; and 
the impulse given thus early to artistic work and to beautiful 
creations seems to have long propagated itself in Kildare, as 
the description of the church by Cogitosus shows, and as we 
may still conjecture from the exquisite round tower with its 
unusually ornamented doorway and its great height of over 130 
feet, the loftiest tower of the kind in Ireland. 

1 Thus well summarised by Dr. Healy from the more diffuse Latin of 
Cogitosus. His description of the church is as follows : It was " solo 
spatiosa et in altum minaci proceritate porrecta ac decorata pictis tabulis, 
tria intrinsecus habens oratoria ampla, et divisa parietibus tabulatis." One of 
the walls was " decoratus, et imaginibus depictus, ac linteamjnibus tectum" 



ST. BRIGIT 161 

No doubt several attributes of the pagan Brigit, 1 who, as we 
have seen, was accounted by the ancient Irish to have been the 
goddess of poets, passed over to her Christian namesake, who 
was also credited with being the patroness of men of learning. 
On this, her life in the Book of Lismore contains the following 
significant and rather obscure passage : 

" Brigit was once with her sheep on the Curragh, and she saw 
running past her a son of reading, 2 to wit Nindid the scholar was he. 

" ' What makes thee unsedate, O son of reading ? ' saith Brigit, ' and 
what seekest thou in that wise ? ' 

" ' O nun,' saith the scholar, ' I am going to heaven.' 

" ' The Virgin's son knoweth,' said Brigit, ( happy is he that goeth 
that journey, and for God's sake make prayer with me that it may be 
easy for me to go.' 

" ' O nun,' said the scholar, ' I have no leisure, for the gates of 
heaven are open now and I fear they may be shut against me. Or, 
if thou art hindering me pray the Lord that it may be easy for me to 
go to heaven, and I will pray the Lord for thee, that it may be easy 
for thee, and that thou mayest bring many thousands with thee, into 
heaven.' 



1 This has not escaped Windisch. " Wahrend," he writes, " Patrick nur der 
christlichen Hagiologie angehort, scheint Brigit zugleich die Erbin einer 
aiten heidnischen Gottheit zu sein. Ihr Wesen enthalt Ziige die mehr 
als eine heilig gesprochen Nonne hinter ihr vermuthen lassen." Windisch 
bases this chiefly upon the expressions in Broccan's hymn, which calls her 
the mother of Christ, and calls Christ her son, and equates her with Mary. 
The passage which I have adduced from the Irish life is even more 
remarkable : 

"Brigit," writes Whitley Stokes "(cp. Skr. bhargas) was born at sunrise 
neither within nor without a house, was bathed in milk, her breath revives 
the dead, a house in which she is staying flames up to heaven, cow-dung 
blazes before her, oil is poured on her head ; she is fed from the milk of 
a white red-eared cow ; a fiery pillar rises over her head ; sun rays support 
her wet cloak ; she remains a virgin ; and she was one of the two mothers 
of Christ the Anointed. She has, according to Giraldus Cambrensis, a 
perpetual ashless fire watched by twenty nuns, of whom herself was one, 
blown by fans or bellows only, and surrounded by a hedge within which 
no male could enter" ("Top. Hib." chaps. 34, 35 and 36), from all which Stokes 
declares that one may without much rashness pick out certain of her life- 
incidents as having " originally belonged to the myth or the ritual of some 
goddess of fire." {See preface to "Three Middle Irish Homilies. '1 

2 " Mac-leighinn," which is to this day a usual Irish term iov student. 

L 



i62 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

" Brigit recited a paternoster with him. And he was pious thence- 
forward, and it is he that gave her communion and sacrifice when 
she was dying. Wherefore thence it came to pass that the comradesliip 
of the world's sons of reading is with Brigit, and the Lord gives them 
through Brigit every perfect good they ask." 1 

As St. Patrick is pre-eminently the patron saint of Ireland, 
so is Brigit its patroness, and with the Irish people no Christian 
name is more common for their boys than Patrick, or for their 
girls than Brigit. 2 She was universally known as the "Mary 
of the Gael," and reverenced with a certain chivalric feeling 
which seems to have been always present with the Gaelic nation 
in the case of women, for, says her Irish life, her desire " was 
to satisfy the poor, to expel every hardship, to spare every 
miserable man. ... It is she that helpeth every one who is in 
a strait or a danger ; it is she that abateth the pestilences ; it is 
she that quelleth the anger and the storm of the sea. She is 
the prophetess of Christ : she is the queen of the south : She 
is the Mary of the Gael." The writer closes thus in a burst 
of eloquence : 

1 Thus translated by Dr. Whitley Stokes in his " Lives of the Saints 
from the Book of Lismore," p. 194. In the original : " Conid assein dorala 
cumthanus mac leighirin in domuin re Brigit, co tabair in coimdhi doibh 
tria atach Brigte gach maith fhoirbhthi chuinghid." 

2 Or to speak more accurately no names were more common, but owing 
to the action of various influences, particularly of the National Board, 
with unsympathetic persons at its head, and of the men who direct 
the modern education of the Irish, the people who are not allowed by the 
National Board to learn history, and who are taught to despise the Irish 
language, are gradually being made ashamed of any names that are not 
English, and Patrick and Brigit almost bid fair to follow the way of 
Cormac, Conn, Felim, Art, Donough, Fergus, Diarmuid, and a score of 
other Christian names of men in common use a century ago, but now 
almost wholly extinct, and of Meve, Sive, Eefi, Sheela, Nuala, and as many 
more female names now nearly or completely obsolete. A woman of 
some education said to me lately, " God forbid I should handicap my 
daughter in life by calling her Brigit ; " and a Catholic bishop said the 
other day that too often when an Irish parent abroad did pluck up courage 
to christen his son "Patrick," he put it in, in a shamefaced whisper, at 
the end of several other names. This is the direct result of the teaching 
given by the National Board. 



ST. BRIGIT 1 6 



o 



H Her relics are on earth, with honour and dignity and primacy, 
with miracles and marvels. Her soul is like a sun in the heavenly 
kingdom, among the choir of angels and archangels. And though 
great be her honour here at present, greater by far will it be when 
she shall arise like a shining lamp, in completeness of body and soul 
at the great Assembly of Doomsday, in union with cherubim and 
seraphim, in union with the Son of Mary the Virgin, in the union 
that is nobler than every union, in the union of the Holy Trinity, 
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." 

As of St. Patrick, so of his great co-evangeliser St. Brigit, 
there exist quite a number of various lives ; the most ancient 
being probably a metrical life in Irish contained in the Book 
of Hymns, of which there still exists an eleventh century MS. 
It consists of fifty-three stanzas of four lines each, and is 
ascribed to St. Broccan or Brogan Cloen, who seems to have 
lived at the beginning of the seventh century. 1 This life does 
little more than expatiate upon Brigit's miracles and virtues. 
The next life of importance is that already mentioned, by 
Cogitosus, the Kildare monk, whose date is uncertain, but is 
clearly prior to the Danish invasions. This life, which is in 
very creditable Latin, and four others, were printed by Colgan. 
The first of these four is — probably falsely — attributed to St. 
Ultan, who died in the middle of the seventh century ; the 
next is by a monk who is called Animosus, but of whom 

1 He is said to have written this hymn at the instigation of Ultan, who 
died in 653, but, as Windisch remarks, mention is probably made of Ultan 
only because he is said to have been the first to collect the miracles of 
Brigit — ''die Sprache," adds Windisch, "ist alterthumlich ; besonders 
beachtenswerth sind die ziemlich zahlreiehen Perfectformen." It is remark- 
able that the miracles attributed to Brigit are given in the same order in 
this hymn and in Cogitosus' life of her. The metre is irregular. 

" Ni bu Sanct Brigit suanach 
Ni bu huarach im scire De, 
Sech ni chiuir ni cossena 
Ind noeb dibad bethath che." 

The life by Cogitosus is evidently pre-Danish, and it is more likely to be 
an extension of the short metrical one, than that the metrical one should 
be a resume of it. If this is so it bespeaks a considerable antiquity for the 
Irish verses. 



[64 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

nothing is known, though, as St. Donatus, who became bishop 
ot Fiesole in 824, alludes to his works, he must have been an 
early author ; the third is a twelfth-century work, by Laurence 
of Durham, an Englishman ; and the last is in Latin verse, 
taken from a MS. which the unwearied Colgan procured from 
Monte Cassino, and which is attributed to Coelan, a monk of 
Iniscaltra, who probably lived in the eighth century, while a 
prologue to this life is prefixed by a later writer, the celebrated 
Irish bishop of Fiesole, Donatus, who, in the early part of the 
ninth century, worked with great success in Italy. There is 
something touching in the language with which this great and 
successful child of the Gael reverts in his prologue to the home 
of his childhood : — 

" Far in the west they tell of a matchless land, 1 which goes in 
ancient books by the name of Scotia [i.e., Ireland] ; rich in resources 
this land, having silver, precious stones, vestures and gold, well suited 
to earth-born creatures as regards its climate, its sun, and its arable 
soil ; that Scotia of lovely fields that flow with milk and honey, hath 
skill in husbandry, and raiments, and arms, and arts, and fruits. There 
are no fierce bears there, nor ever has the land of Scotia brought 
forth savage broods of lions. No poisons hurt, no serpent creeps 
through the grass, nor does the babbling frog croak and complain by 
the lake. In this land the Scottish race are worthy to dwell, a 
renowned race of men in war, in peace, in fidelity." 

Whitley Stokes has published the Irish lives of St. Brigit 
from the Leabhar Breac and the Book of Lismore, and 
Donatus alludes to other lives by St. Ultan 2 and St. Eleran, 

1 There is a fragment in the Irish MS. Rawlinson, B. 512, quoted some- 
where by Kuno Meyer, which reminds one of this passage. It begins : 
" Now the island of Ireland, Inis Herenn, has been set in the west. As 
Adam's Paradise stands at the sunrise, so Ireland stands at the sunset, and 
they are alike in the nature of their soil," etc. 

2 St. Ultan wrote a beautiful Irish hymn and also a La t in hymn to her — 
at least they are attributed to him — beginning — 

"Christus in nostra insola 
Que vocatur hi hernia 
Ostensus est hominibus 
Maximis mirabilibus. 



ST. BRIG IT 165 

so that Brigit has not lacked biographers. She herself is said 
to have written a rule for her nuns and some other things, and 
O'Curry prints one Irish poem ascribed to her — in which she 
prays for the family of heaven to be present at her feast : 
"I should like the men of heaven in my own house, I 
should like rivers of peace to be at their disposal," etc. — 
which appears to be alluded to in the preface to the Litany 
of Angus the Culdee, as the " great feast which St. Brigit 
made for Jesus in her heart." z 

Que perfecit per felicem 
Celestis vite virginem 
Precellentem pro men to 
Magno in mundi circulo." 

See Todd's " Liber Hymnorum," vol. ii. p. 58. The Latin orthography of 
the Irish is seldom quite perfect. 
1 This poem begins : 

" Ropadh maith lem corm-lind mor 
Do righ na righ 

Ropadh maith lem muinnter nimhe 
Acca hoi tre bithe shir." 

I.e., " I would like a great lake of ale for the King of the kings, I would 
like the people of heaven to be drinking it through eternal ages," which 
sounds curious, but Brigit probably meant it allegorically. 



CHAPTER XV 



COLUMCILLE 



The third great patron Saint of Ireland, the man who stands 
out almost as conspicuously as St. Patrick himself in the 
religious history of the Gael, the most renowned missionary, 
scribe, scholar, poet, statesman, anchorite, and school-founder 
of the sixth century is St. Columcille. 1 Everything about this 
remarkable man has conspired to fix upon him the imagination 
of the Irish race. He was not, like St. Patrick, of alien, nor 
like St. Brigit, of semi-servile birth, but was sprung from the 
highest and bluest blood of the Irish, being son of Felemidh, 
son of Fergus, f son of Conall Gulban — renowned to this day in 
saga and romance — son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, that 
great monarch of Ireland who ravaged Britain and exacted 
tributes far and wide from his conquered enemies. 

He was born on the 7th of December, 52 1, 2 twenty-nine 
years after the reputed death of St. Patrick, and four years 

1 Also often called St. Columba, to be strictly distinguished from Colum- 
banus, who laboured on the Continent. The name is written sometimes 
Colomb Cille and Colum Kille or Columkille. It is pronounced in Irish 
Cullum-killa, and means literally the "Dove of the Church," but in English 
the name is generally pronounced Columkill. 

2 As calculated by Dr. Reeves, who coincides with the " Four Masters" 
and Dr. Lanigan. The other Annals waver between 518 and 523. 

106 



COLUMCILLE 167 

before that of St. Brigit, at Gartan I in Donegal, a wild but 
beautiful district of which his father was the prince. The 
reigning monarch of Ireland was his half-uncle, while his mother 
Ethne was the direct descendant of the royal line of Cathaoir 
[Cauheer] Mor, the regnant family of Leinster, and he himself 
would have had some chance of the reversion of the monarchy 
had he been minded to press his claims. Reared at Kilmacrenan, 
near Gartan, the place where the O'Donnells were afterwards 
inaugurated, he received his first teaching at the hands of 
St. Finnen or Finnian in- his famous school at Moville, for 
already since Patrick's death Ireland had become dotted with 
such small colleges. It was here at this early age that his 
school-fellows christened him Colum-cille, or Colum of the 
Church, on account of the assiduity with which he sought 
the holy building. At this period the Christian clergy and the 
bardic order were the only two educational powers in Ireland, 
and after leaving St. Finnian, Columcille travelled south into 
Leinster to a bard called Gemman 2 with whom he took lessons. 
From him he went to St. Finnen or Finnian of Clonard. 
While studying at Clonard it was the custom for each of the 
students to grind corn in his turn at a quern, but, Columcille's 
Irish life in the Book of Lismore tells us naively, in true old 
Irish spirit, " howbeit an angel from heaven used to grind on 
behalf of Columcille ; that was the honour which the Lord 
used to render him because of the eminent nobleness of his 
race." St. Ciaran [Keeran] was at this time a fellow-student 
with him, and Finnian, says the Irish life, saw one night a 
vision, " to wit, two moons arose from Clonard, a golden moon 
and a silver moon. The golden moon went into the north 

1 See the lines in O'Donnell's life of the saint, ascribed to St. Mura : 

" Rugadh i nGartan da dheoin / S do h-oileadh i gCill mhic Xeoin 
'S do baisteadh mac na maise / A dTulaigh De Dubhghlaise." 

2 He is called "German the Master" in the Book of Lismore life. In 
the life of Finnian of Clonard he is called Carminator nomine gemanus, 

who brings to St. Finnian " quoddam carmen mngnincum." 



168 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

of the island, and Ireland and Scotland gleamed under it. The 
silver moon went on until it stayed by the Shannon, and 
Ireland at her centre gleamed." That, says the author, 
signified " Columcille with the grace of his noble kin and 
his wisdom, and Ciaran with the refulgence of his virtues 
and his good deeds." 

Leaving Clonard behind him, Columcille passed on to yet 
another school — this time to that of Mobhi at Glasnevin, near 
Dublin, where there were as many as fifty students at work, 
living in huts or cells grouped round an oratory, some of whom 
were famous men in after-time, for they included Cainnech and 
Comgall and Ciaran. A curious incident is recorded of these 
three and of Columcille in the Irish life in the Book of Lismore. 

Columcille was driven from Glasnevin by the approach of 
the great plague which ravaged the country, and of which 
his teacher Mobhi died. 

" Once on a time," says the author, " a great church was built by 
Mobhi. The clerics were considering what each of them would 
like to have in the church. ' I should like,' said Ciaran, ' its full of 
church children to attend the canonical hours.' "' I should like/ said 
Cainnech, ' to have its full of books to serve the sons of life.' ' I 
should like,' said Comgall, - its full of affliction and disease to be in 
my own body : to subdue me and repress me.' Then Columcille 
chose its full of gold and silver to cover relics and shrines withal. 
Mobhi said it should not be so, but that Columcille's community 
would be wealthier than any community, whether in Ireland or in 
Scotland." l 

1 A similar story of Cummain the Tall, of Guaire the Connacht king who 
still gives his name to the town of Gort, which is Gort Inse-Guaire, and 
of Caimine of Inisceltra, is told in the Leabhar na h-Uidhre, and printed 
by Whitley Stokes in a note at p. 304 of his " Lives from the Book of 
Lismore." Each of the three got as he had desired, for, says the 
chronicler, " all their musings were made true. The earth was given 
to Guaire. Wisdom was given to Cummain. Diseases and sicknesses 
were inflicted on Caimine, so that no bone of him joined together in the 
earth, but melted and decayed with the anguish of every disease and of 
every tribulation, so that they all went to heaven according to their 
musings." (See for the same story the Yellow Book of Lecan, p. 132, 
of facsimile.) 



COLUMCILLE 169 

Betaking himself northward with a growing reputation, he 
was offered by his cousin, then Prince of Aileach, near Deny, 
and afterwards monarch of Ireland, the site of a monastery on 
the so-called island of Derry, a rising ground of oval shape, 
covering some two hundred acres, along the slopes of which 
flourished a splendid forest of oak-trees, which gave to the 
oasis its name of Derry or the oak grove. Columcille, like 
all Gaels — and indeed all Celts — was full of love for every- 
thing beautiful in nature, both animate and inanimate, and so 
careful was he of his beloved oaks that, contrary to all custom, 
he would not build his church with its chancel towards the 
east, for in that case some of the oaks would have had to be 
felled to make room for it. He laid strict injunctions upon all 
his successors to spare the lovely grove, and enjoined that if 
any of the trees should be blown down some of them should go 
for fuel to their own guest-house, and the rest be given to 
the people. 

This was Columcille's first religious institution, and, like 
every man's firstling, it remained dear to him to the last. 
Years afterwards, when the thought of it came back to him 
on the barren shores of Iona, he expressed himself in passionate 
Irish poetry. 



" For oh ! were the tributes of Alba mine 

From shore unto centre, from centre to sea, 
The site of one house, to be marked by a line 
In the midst of fair Derry were dearer to me. 

That spot is the dearest on Erin's ground, 

For the treasures that peace and that purity lend, 

For the hosts of bright angels that circle it round, 
Protecting its borders from end to end. 

The dearest of any on Erin's ground 

For its peace and its beauty I gave it my love, 

Each leaf of the oaks around Derry is found 
To be crowded with angels from heaven above. 



i;o LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

My Deny ! my Dcrry ! my little oak grove, 
My dwelling, my home, and my own little cell, 

May God the Eternal in Heaven above 

Send death to thy foes and defend thee well." * 

Columcillc was yet a young man, only twenty-five years of 
age, when he founded Deny, but both his own genius, and 
more especially his great friends and kinsfolk, had conspired to 
make him famous. For the next seventeen years he laboured 
in Ireland, and during this time founded the still more 
celebrated schools of Durrow in the present King's County, 
and of Kells in Meath, both of which became most famous in 
after years. Durrow, 2 which, like Deny, was named from 

1 Literally, " Were the tribute of all Alba mine, from its centre to its 
border, I would prefer the site of one house in the middle of Derry. The 
reason I love Derry is for its quietness, for its purity, and for the crowds 
of white angels from the one end to the other. The reason why I love 
Derry is for its quietness, for its purity, crowded full of heaven's angels in 
every leaf of the oaks of Derry. My Derry, my little oak grove, my 
dwelling and my little cell, O Eternal God in heaven above, woe be to 
him who violates it." 

" Is aire, caraim Doire 
Ar a reidhe, ar a ghloine, 
's ar iomatt a aingel find 
On chind go soich aroile." 

This poem is taken from a Brussels MS., copied by Michael O'Clery for 
Father Colgan, and by him accepted apparently as genuine. Some of it 
may very well be so, only, as usual, it has been greatly altered and 
modified in transcription, as may be seen from the above verse. {See 
p. 288 of Reeves' " Adamnan.") Some of the verses are evidently inter- 
pelations, but the Irish life in the Book of Lismore distinctly attributes to 
him the verse which I have here given, going out of its way to quote it in 
full, but the third line is a little different as quoted in the life : " ar is 
lomlan aingeal bhfinn." 

2 In Irish Dair-magh, " oak-plain." Columcille seems to have been 
particularly fond of the oak, for his Irish life tells us that it was under 
a great oak-tree that he resided while at Kells also. The writer adds, 
"audit" — the great oak-tree — "remained till these latter times, when it 
fell through the crash of a mighty wind. And a certain man took some- 
what of its bark to tan his shoes with. Now, when he did on the shoes, 
he was smitten with leprosy from his sole to his crown." It is well known 
to this day that it is unlucky, or worse, to touch a saint's tree. I have been 
observing one that was, when in the last stage of decrepitude, blown down 



COLUMCILLE 171 

the beautiful groves of oak which were scattered along the slope 
of Druim-cain, or " the pleasant hill," seems to have retained 
to the last a hold upon the affections of Columcille second only 
to that of Derry. When its abbot, Cormac the voyager, 
visited him long years afterwards in Iona, and expressed his 
unwillingness to return to his monastery again, because, being 
a Momonian of the race of Eber, the southern Ui Neill were 
jealous of him, and made his abbacy unpleasant or impossible, 
Columcille reproached him in pathetic terms for abandoning so 
lovely an abode — 

" With its books and its learning, 
A devout city with a hundred crosses." 

" O Cormac," he exclaimed — 

" I pledge thee mine unerring word 
Which it is not possible to impugn, 
Death is better in reproachless Erin 
Than perpetual life in Alba [Scotland]. 1 



a few years ago at the well of St. Aracht or Atracta, a female saint of 
Connacht in the plains of Boyle ; yet, though the people around are 
nearly famished for want of fuel, not one twig of it has yet been 
touched. In the Edinburgh MS. of Columcille's life we read how on 
another occasion he made a hymn to arrest a fire that was consuming the 
oak-wood, " and it is sung against every lire and against every thunder 
from that time to this." (See Skene's " Celtic Scotland," vol. ii. pp. 468-507.) 

1 " Is si mo cubitus gan col 

's nocha conagdr m' eiliughadh 
Ferr ecc ind Eirind ccn ail 
Ina sir beatha ind Alpitin." 

For the whole of this poem, in the form of a dialogue between Cormac 
and Columcille, see p. 264 of Reeves' " Adamnan." It is very hard to say 
how much or how little of these poems is really Columcille's. Colgan 
was inclined to think them genuine. Of course, as we now have them, 
the language is greatly modernised ; but I am inclined to agree with Dr. 
Healy, who judges them rather from internal than from linguistic 
evidence ; and while granting, of course, that they have been retouched 
by later bards, adds, "but in our opinion they represent substantial!}/ 
poems that were really written by the saint. They breathe his pious 
spirit, his ardent love for nature, and his undying affection for his native 



172 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

And on another occasion, when it strikes him how happy 
the son of Dima, i.e., Cormac, must be at the approach ot 
summer along the green hillside of Rosgrencha — another 
name for Durrow — amid its fair slopes, waving woods, and 
singing birds, compared with himself exiled to the barren 
shores of rugged Iona, he bursts forth into the tenderest 
song — 

o 

" How happy the son is of Dima ! no sorrow 
For him is designed, 
He is having", this hour, round his own cell in Durrow 
The wish of his mind : 

The sound of the wind in the elms, like the strings of 

A harp being played, 
The note of the blackbird that claps with the wings of 

Delight in the glade. 

With him in Rosgrencha the cattle are lowing 

At earliest dawn, 
On the brink of the summer the pigeons are cooing 

And doves on his lawn," etc.' 

Columcille continued his labours in Ireland, founding 
churches and monasteries and schools, until he was forty-two 

land. Although retouched, perhaps, by a later hand, they savour so 
strongly of the true Columbian spirit that we are disposed to reckon them 
amongst the genuine compositions of the saint." (" Ireland's Schools and 
Scholars," p. 329.) "The older pieces here preserved," says Dr. Robert 
Atkinson in his preface to the contents of the facsimile of the Book of 
Leinster, " and of whose genuineness and authenticity there seems no room 
for doubt, ex. gr., the Poems ofColum Cille, bear with them the marks of the 
action of successive transcribers, whose desire to render them intelligible 
has obscured the linguistic proofs of their age." 

1 Literally, " How happy the son of Dima of the devout church, when he 
hears in Durrow the desire of his mind, the sound of the wind against the 
elms when 'tis played, the blackbird's joyous note when he claps his 
wings ; to listen at early dawn in Rosgrencha to the cattle, the cooing of 
the cuckoo from the tree on the brink of summer," etc. (See Reeves' 
" Adamnan," p. 274). 

" Fuaim na goithi ris in leman ardos peti 
Longaire luin duibh conati at" mben a eti." 



COLUMCILLE 173 

years of age. He was at this time at the height of his physical 
and mental powers, a man of a masterful but of a too passion- 
ate character, of fine physique, and enjoying a reputation 
second to that of none in Erin. The commentator in the 
Feilire of Angus describes his appearance as that of "a man 
well-formed, with powerful frame ; his skin was white, his 
face was broad and fair and radiant, lit up with large, grey, 1 
luminous eyes ; his large and well-shaped head was crowned, 
except where he wore his frontal tonsure, with close and 
curling hair. His voice was clear and resonant, so that he 
could be heard at the distance of 1,500 paces, 2 yet sweet with 
more than the sweetness of the bards." His activity was 
incessant. " Not a single hour of the day," says Adamnan, 
" did he leave unoccupied without engaging either in prayer, 
or in reading, or in writing, or in some other work ; " and he 
laboured with his hands as well as with his head, cooking or 
looking after his ploughmen, or engaged in ecclesiastical or 
secular matters. All accounts go to show that he was of a 
hot and passionate temperament, and endowed with both the 
virtues and the faults that spring from such a character. 
Indeed this was, no doubt, why in the "famous vision " 3 

1 He himself refers to his " grey eye looking back to Erin " in one of 
his best-known poems. 

2 In token of which is the Irish quatrain quoted in his life — 

" Son a ghotha Coluim cille, 
mor a binne os gach cleir 
go ceann cuig cead deag ceimeann, 
Aidhbhle reimeann, eadh ba reill. 

3 " So then Baithine related to him the famous vision, to wit, three 
chairs seen by him in heaven, even a chair of gold and a chair of silver 
and a chair of glass. Columcille explained the vision. Ciaran the Great, 
the carpenter's son, is the chair of gold for the greatness of his charity and 
his mercy. Molaisse is the chair of silver because of his wisdom and his 
piety. I myself am the chair of glass because of my affection, for I prefer 
the Gaels to the men of the world, and Kinel Conall [his own tribe] to the 
[other] Gaels, and the kindred of Lughid to the Kinel Conall." (Leabhar 
Breac, quoted by Stokes, " Irish Lives," p. 303 ; but the reason here given 
for being seated on a chair of glass is, as Stokes remarks, unmeaning.) 



174 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

which Baithin saw concerning him, he was seated only on 
a chair of glass ; while Ciaran was on a chair of gold, and 
Molaisse upon a chair of silver. The commentator on the 
Feilire of Angus boldly states that, " though his devotion was 
delightful, he was carnal and often frail even as glass is fragile." 
Aware of this, he wore himself out with fastings and vigils, 1 
and no doubt — 

" Lenior et melior fit accedente senectu," 

for Adamnan describes him, from the recollections of the 
monks who knew him, as being angelic in aspect 2 and bright 
in conversation, and despite his great labours yet " dear to all, 
displaying his holy countenance always cheerful." A curious 
story is told in the Leabhar Breac, of the stratagems to which 
his people resorted to checkmate his self-imposed penance ; for 
having one day seen an old woman living upon pottage of 
nettles, while she was waiting for her one cow to calve and 
give her milk, the notion came to him that he too would 
thenceforward live upon the same, for if she could do so, much 
more could he, and it would be profitable to his soul in gaining 
the kingdom of heaven. So, said the writer, he called his ser- 
vant — 

" ' Pottage,' saith he, ' from thee every night, and bring not the 
milk with it.' 

" ' It shall be done,' said the cook. 

"He (the cook) bores the mixing-stick of the pottage, so that it 
became a pipe, and he used to pour the meat juice into the pipe, 
down, so that it was mixed through the pottage. That preserves 
the cleric's (Columcille's) appearance. The monks perceived the 

1 " Jejunationum quoque et vigiliarum indefessis laboribus sine ulla 
intermissione, die noctu-que ita occupatus ut supra humanam possibili- 
tatem uniuscujusque pondus specialis videretur operis," says Adamnan in 
the preface to his first book. 

2 " Erat enim aspectu angelicus, sermone nitidus, opere sanctus, ingenio 
optimus, consilio magnus. . . et inter haec omnibus carus, hilarem semper 
faciem ostendens sanctam, spiritus sancti gaudio intimis laetificabatur 
praecordiis." 



COLUMCILLE 175 

cleric's good appearance, and they talked among themselves. That 
is revealed to Columcille, so he said, ' May your successors be 
always murmuring.' 

" 'Well now,' said Columcille, said he, to his servant, 'what dost 
thou give me every day ? ' 

" ' Thou art witness,' said the cook, ' unless it come out of the iron 
of the pot, or out of the stick wherewith the pottage is mixed, I know 
nought else in it save pottage ! ' " 

It was now, however, that events occurred which had the 
result of driving Columcille abroad and launching him upon 
a more stormy and more dangerous career, as the apostle of 
Scotland and the Picts. St. Finnian of Moville, with whom he 
studied in former days, had brought back with him from Rome 
a copy of the Psalms, probably the first copy of St. Jerome's 
translation, or Vulgate, that had appeared in Ireland, which he 
highly valued, and which he did not wish Columcille to copy. 
Columcille however, who was a dexterous and rapid scribe, 
found opportunity, by sitting up during several nights, to make 
a copy of the book secretly, 1 but Finnian learning it claimed 

1 This copy made by Columcille is popularly believed to be the cele- 
brated codex known as the Cathach or " Battler," which was an heirloom 
of the saint's descendants, the O'Donnells. It was always carried three 
times round their army when they went to battle, on the breast of a cleric, 
who, if he were free from mortal sin, was sure to bring them victory. The 
Mac Robartaighs were the ancestral custodians of the holy relic, and 
Cathbar O'Donnell, the chief of the race at the close of the eleventh cen- 
tury, constructed an elaborately splendid shrine or cover for it. This 
precious heirloom remained with the O'Donnells until Donal O'Donnell, 
exiled in the cause of James II., brought it with him to the Continent and 
fixed a new rim upon the casket with his name and date. It was reco- 
vered from the Continent in 1802 by Sir Neal O'Donnell, and was opened 
by Sir William Betham soon after. This would in the previous century 
have been considered a deadly crime, for " it was not lawful " to open the 
Cathach ; as it was, Sir Neal's widow brought an action in the Court of 
Chancery against Sir William Betham for daring to open it. There turned 
out to be a decayed wooden box inside the casket, and inside this again 
was a mass of vellum stuck together and hardened into a single lump. By 
long steeping in water however, and other treatment, the various leaves 
came asunder, and it was found that what it contained was really a Psalter, 
written in Latin, in a " neat but hurried hand." Fifty-eight leaves re- 
mained, containing from the 31st to the 106th Psalm, and an examination of 



i;6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

the copy. Columcille refused it, and the matter was referred 
to King Diarmuid at Tara. The monarch, to whom books 
and their surroundings were probably something new, as a 
matter for legal dispute, could find in the Brehon law no 
nearer analogy to adjudicate the case by, than the since cele- 
brated sentence le gach boln a boinin, "with every cow her calf," 
in which terms he, not altogether unnaturally, decided in 
favour of St. Finnian, saying, "with every book its son-book, 
as with every cow her calf." l This alone might not have 
brought about the crisis, but unfortunately the son of the king 
of Connacht, who had been present at the great Convention or 
Feis of Tara, in utter violation of the law of sanctuary which 
alone rendered this great meeting possible, slew the son of the 
king's steward, and knowing that the penalty was certain 
death, he fled to the lodging of the northern princes Fergus 
and Domhnall [Donall] who immediately placed him under the 
protection of St. Columcille. This however did not avail him, 
for King Diarmuid, who was no respecter of persons, had him 
promptly seized and put to death in atonement for his crime. 
This, combined with his unfortunate judgment about the 
book, enraged the imperious Columcille to the last degree. 
He made his way northward and appealed to his kinsmen to 
avenge him. A great army was collected, led by Fergus and 
Domhnall, two first cousins of Columcille, and by the king 
of Connacht, whose son had been put to death. The High- 
king marched to meet this formidable combination with all 
the troops he could gather. Pushing his way across the island 
he met their combined forces in the present county of Sligo, 

the text has shown that it really does contain a copy of the second revision 
of the Psalter by St. Jerome, which helps to strengthen the belief that this 
may have been the very book for which three thousand warriors fought 
and fell in the Battle of Cooldrevna. 

1 Keating says that this account of the affair was preserved in the Black 
Book of Molaga, one of his ancient authorities now lost. The king decided, 
says Keating, " gorab Icis gach Icabhar a mhaic-lcabliar, mar is le gach 
boinn a boinin." 



COLUMCILLE 



/ / 



between Benbulbin and the sea. A furious battle was de- 
livered in which he was defeated with the loss of three thou- 
sand men. 

It was soon after this battle that Columcille decided to leave 
Ireland. There is a great deal of evidence that he did so as a 
kind of penance, either self-imposed or enjoined upon him by 
St. Molafse [Moleesha], as Keating says, or by the " synod of 
the Irish saints," as O'Donnell has it. He had helped to fill 
all Ireland with arms and bloodshed, and three thousand men 
had fallen in one battle largely on account of him, and it was 
not the only appeal to arms which lay upon his conscience. 1 
He set sail from his beloved Derry in the year 593, determined, 
according to popular tradition, to convert as many souls to 
Christ as had fallen in the battle of Cooldrevna. Amongst 
the dozen monks of his own order who accompanied him were 
his two first cousins and his uncle. 

It was death and breaking of heart for him to leave the land 
of Erin, and he pathetically expresses his sorrow in his own 
Irish verses. 

" Too swiftly my coracle flies on her way, 

From Derry I mournfully turned her prow, 
I grieve at the errand which drives me to-day 
To the Land of the Ravens, to Alba, now. 



How swiftly we travel ! there is a grey eye 
Looks back upon Erin, but it no more 

Shall see while the stars shall endure in the sky 
Her women, her men, or her stainless shore. 



1 "These were," says the commentator on St. Columcille's hymn, the 
". Vitus," " the three battles which he had caused in Erin, viz., the battle of 
Ciil-Rathain, between him and Comgall, contending for a church, viz., 
Ross Torathair ; and the battle of Bealach-fhedaof the weir of Clonard ; and 
the battle of Cul Dremhne [Cooldrevna] in Connacht, and it was against 
Diarmait Mac Cerball [the High-king], he fought them both." Keating's 
account also agrees with this, but Reeves has shown that the two later 
battles in which he was implicated probably took place after his exile. 

M 



i;S LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

From the plank of the oak where in sorrow I lie, 
I am straining" my sight through the water and wind, 

And large is the tear of the soft grey eye 

Looking back on the land that it leaves behind. 

To Erin alone is my memory given, 

To Meath and to Minister my wild thoughts flow, 

To the shores of Moy*linny, the slopes of Loch Leven, 
And the beautiful land the Ultonians know." 

He refers distinctly to the penance imposed upon him by St. 

Moleesha. 

" To the nobles that gem the bright isle of the Gael 
Carry this benediction over the sea, 
And bid them not credit Moleesha's tale, 
And bid them not credit his words of me. 

Were it not for the word of Moleesha's mouth 
At the cross of Ahamlish that sorrowful day, 

I now should be warding from north and from south 
Disease and distemper from Erin away." 

His mind reverts to former scenes of delight — 

" How dear to my heart in yon western land 

Is the thought of Loch Foyle where the cool waves pour, 
And the bay of Drumcliff on Culcinne's strand, 
How grand was the slope of its curving shore ! 



O bear me my blessing afar to the West, 

For the heart in my bosom is broken ; I fail. 

Should death of a sudden now pierce my breast 
I should die of the love that I bear the Gael ! " ■ 

1 Literally : " How rapid the speed of my coracle and its stern turned 
towards Derry. I grieve at the errand over the proud sea, travelling to Alba 
of the Ravens. There is a grey eye that looks back upon Erin : it shall not 
see during life the men of Erin nor their wives. My vision o'er the brine I 
stretch from the ample oaken planks ; large is the tear from my soft grey 
eye when T look back upon Erin. Upon Erin is my attention fixed, upon 
Loch Leven [Lough Lene in West Meath], upon Line [Moy-linny, near 



COLUMCILLE 179 

Columcille is the first example in the saddened page of Irish 
history of the exiled Gael grieving for his native land and 
refusing to be comforted, and as such he has become the very 
type and embodiment of Irish fate and Irish character. The 
flag in bleak Gartan, upon which he was born, is worn thin 
and bare by the hands and feet of pious pilgrims, and " the 
poor emigrants who are about to quit Donegal for ever, come 
and sleep on that flag the night before their departure from 
Derry. Columcille himself was an exile, and they fondly hope 
that sleeping on the spot where he was born will help them to 
bear with lighter heart the heavy burden of the exile's 
sorrows." * He is the prototype of the millions of Irish exiles 
in after ages — 

" Ruined exiles, restless, roaming, 
Longing for their fatherland," 2 

and the extraordinary deep roots which his life and poetry have 
struck into the soil of the North was strikingly evidenced this 

Antrim] , upon the land the Ultonians own, upon smooth Munster, upon 
Meath. . . . Carry my benediction over the sea to the nobles of the Island 
of the Gael, let them not credit Moleesha's words nor his threatened 
persecution. Were it not for Moleesha's words at the Cross of Ahamlish, 
I should not permit during my life disease or distemper in Ireland. . . . 
Beloved to my heart also in the west is Drumcliff at Culcinne's strand : to 
behold the fair Loch Foyle, the form of its shores is delightful. . . . 
Take my blessing with thee to the west, broken is my heart in my 
breast, should sudden death overtake me it is for my great love of the 
Gael." 

1 Dr. Healy's " Ireland's Schools and Scholars," p. 293. A fact which 
is also confirmed by Dr. Reeves, p. lxviii of his " Adamnan," where he 
says : " The country people believe that whoever sleeps a night on this 
stone will be free from home-sickness when he goes abroad, and for this 
reason it has been much resorted to by emigrants on the eve of then- 
departure." I cannot say whether the breaking up of old ties produced 
by the National Board — which has elsewhere so skilfully robbed the peoplo 
of their birthright — may not have put an end to this custom within the la:U 
few years. 

2 " Deoraidhe gan sgith gan sos, 
Mianaid a dtir 's a nduthchas." 

1 This verse was either composed or quoted by John O'Mahony, the 
Fenian Head-centre, when in America. 



i So LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

\ civ year (1898) by the wonderful celebration of his centenary at 
Gartan, at which many thousands of people, who had travelled 
all night over the surrounding mountains, were present, and 
where it was felt to be so incongruous that the life of such a 
great Irish patriot, prince, and poet, in the diocese, too, or an 
O'Donnell, should be celebrated in English, that — probably for 
the first time in this century — Irish poems were read and Irish 
speeches made, even by the Cardinal-Primate and the 
Bishop of the diocese. 

Of Columcille's life on the craggy little island or Iona, of 
his splendid labours in converting the Picts, and of the 
monastery which he established, and which, occupied by Irish 
monks, virtually rendered Iona an Irish island for the next 
six hundred years, there is no need to speak here, for these 
things belong rather to ecclesiastical than to literary history. 

Columcille himself was an unwearied scribe, and delighted 
in poetry. Ample provision was made for the multiplication 
of books in all the monasteries which he founded, and his 
Irish life tells us that he himself wrote " three hundred 
gifted, lasting, illuminated, noble books." The life in the 
Book of Lismore tells us that he once went to Clonmacnois 
with a hymn he had made for St. Ciaran, ' for he made 
abundant praises for God's household, as said the poet, 

" Noble, thrice fifty, nobler than every apostle, 
The number of miracles [of poems] are as grass, 
Some in Latin, which was beguiling, 
Others in Gaelic, fair the tale." ' 

Of these only three in Latin are now known to exist, whilst 
of the great number of Irish poems attributed to him only a 
few — half a dozen at the most — are likely to be even partly 
genuine. His best known hymn is the " Altus," so called 
from its opening word ; it was first printed by Colgan, 1 and 

1 Also in the "Liber Hymnorum," vol. ii. ; and again in 1882 with a prose 
paraphrase and notes by the Marquis of Bute, who says : " the intrinsic j 



COLUMCILLE 181 

its genuineness is generally admitted. It is a long and rudely- 
constructed poem, of twenty-two stanzas, preserved in the 
Book of Hymns, a MS. probably of the eleventh century. 
Each stanza consists of six lines, 1 and each line of sixteen 
syllables. There is a pause after the eighth syllable, and a 
kind of rhyme between every two lines. The first verses run 
thus with an utter disregard of quantity. 

"Altus prosator, vetustus dierum et ingenitus, 
Erat absque origine primordii et crepidine, 
Est et erit in saecula sasculorum infinitus, 
Cui est unigenitus Christus et Spiritus Sanctus," etc. 

The second Latin hymn is a supplement to this one, com- 
posed in praise of the Trinity, because Pope Gregory who, as 
the legend states, perceived the angels listening when the "Altus" 
was recited to him, was yet of opinion that the first stanza of 
the original poem, despite its additional line, was insufficient to 
express a competent laudation of the mystery, consequently 
Columcille added, it was said, fifteen rude-rhyming couplets of 
the same character as the "Altus," but it is very doubtful whether 
they are genuine. The third hymn, the "Noli Pater," is still 
shorter, consisting of only seven rhyming couplets with sixteen 
syllables in each line. It was in ancient times considered an 
efficient safeguard against fire and lightning. Some of his reputed 
Irish poems we have already glanced at ; three that Colgan con- 
sidered genuine were printed by Dr. Reeves in his " Adamnan ;" 
and another, the touching "Farewell to Ara," is contained in the 
"Gaelic Miscellany" of 1808 ; and another on his escape from 

merits of the composition are undoubtedly very great, especially in the 
latter capitula [i.e., stanzas], some of which the editor thinks would not 
suffer by comparison with the Dies Irce." Dr. Dovvden, Bishop of Edin- 
burgh, has printed, in his pleasant little volume on the "Celtic Church in 
Scotland," p. 323, a most admirable translation of it into English verse 
by the Rev. Anthony Mitchell. 

1 Except the first stanza, which being in honour of the Holy Trinity has 
seven lines. 



iSj LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

King Diarmuid, when the king of Connacht's son was put 
to death for violating the Fcis at Tara, is printed in the 
"Miscellany" of the Irish Archaeological Society. 1 There are 
three verses, composed by him as a prayer at the battle of 
Cooldrevna, ascribed to him in the "Chronicon Scotorum ;" and 
there is a collection of fifteen poems attributed to him in the 
O'Clery MSS. at Brussels, and nearly a hundred more — mostly 
evident forgeries — in the Bodleian at Oxford. 2 He does not 
seem to have ever written any work in prose. 

There are six lives of Columcille still extant, the greatest of 
them all being that in Latin by Adamnan,3 who was one of 
his successors in the abbacy of Iona, and who was born only 
twenty-seven years after Columcille's death. This admirable 
work, written in flowing and very fair Latin, was derived, as 
Adamnan himself tells us, partly from oral and partly from 
written sources. A memoir of Columcille had already been 
written by Cuimine Finn or Cummeneus Albus,4 as Adamnan 
calls him, the last Abbot of Iona but one before himself, and 
that memoir he almost entirely embodied in his third book. 
He had also some other written accounts before him, and the 
Irish poems, both of the saint himself and of other bards, 
amongst them Baithine Mor, who had enjoyed his personal 
friendship, and St. Mura, who was a little his junior — poems, 

1 This poem begins — 

" M'cenuran dam is in sliab, 
A rig grian rop sorad sed, 
Nocha n-eaglaigi dam ni, 
Na du mbeind tri ficit ced." 

I find other verses attributed to him in the MS marked H I. n. in 
Trinity College, Dublin. 

2 Laud, 615. 

3 Edited in 1857 for the Irish Archaeological Society by Dr. Reeves, 
afterwards Bishop of Down, with all the perfection which the most 
accurate scholarship and painstaking research could accomplish. It is not 
too much to say that his name is likely to remain in the future associated 
with those of Adamnan and Columcille. 

4 Book III., chapter 5 of Adamnan's " Life of Columcille." 



COLUMCILLE 183 

now lost. He had also constant opportunities of conversing 
with those who had seen the great saint and had been familiar 
with him in life, and he was writing on the spot and amidst 
the associations and surroundings wherein his last thirty years 
had been spent, and which were inseparably connected with 
his memory. The result was that he produced a work, which 
although not ostensibly a history, and dealing only with the 
life of a single man, and that rather from the transcendental 
than from the practical side, is nevertheless of the utmost value 
to the historian on account not only of the general picture of 
manners and customs, but still more on account of its incidental 
references to contemporary history. " It is," says Pinkerton, 
who, as Dr. Reeves remarks, was a writer not over-given to 
eulogy, " the most complete piece of such biography that all 
Europe can boast of, not only at so early a period but even 
through the whole Middle Ages." Adamnan's other great 
work on Sacred Places is mentioned by his contemporary, the 
Venerable Bede, but he is silent as to Columcille's life. There 
is, however, abundant internal evidence of its authenticity. 
This evidence, however it might satisfy the minds of mere 
Irish students like Colgan and Stephen White, proved in- 
sufficient, however, to meet the exacting claims of certain 
British scholars. " I cannot agree," said Sir James Dalrymple, 
in the last century, " that the authority of Adamnanus is equal, 
far less preferable to that of Bede, since it was agreed on all 
hands to be a fabulous history lately published in his name, and 
that he was remarkable for nothing, but that he was the first 
abbot of that monastery who quit the Scottish institution, and 
became fond of the English Romish Rites." I Dr. Giles, too, 
who thought of editing it, tells us in his translation of 
Bede's tc Ecclesiastical History," that lie had "strong doubts of 



1 Alluding to the fact that Adamnan tried to persuade his countrymen 

to change their mode of calculating Easter, and to adopt the Roman 
tonsure. Sir James Dalrymple is here engaged in defending the Presby- 
terian view of church government. 



[84 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Adamnan's having written it." 1 And, finally, Schoell, a German, 
professed to have convinced himself that Adamnan's preface 
could not have been written by the same hand which wrote 
the life, so different did the style of the two appear to him, 
and wholly rejected it as a work of the seventh century written 
at Iona. 

But it so happened that shortly before the year 1851, when 
Schoell was impugning the genuineness of this work, the 
ancient manuscript from which it had been copied by the 
Irish Jesuit, Stephen White — and, from his copy, printed by 
Colgan — actually came to light again, discovered by Dr. 
Ferdinand Keller at the bottom of an old book-shelf in the 
public library of Schaffhausen, into which it had been turned 
with some other old manuscripts and books. A close exami- 
nation of this remarkable text written in a heavy round Irish 
hand, in nearly the same type of script as the Books of Kells 
and Durrow, and of a more archaic character than that of the 
Book of Armagh (written in 807), rendered it certain that 
here was a codex of great value and' antiquity. Nor was the 
usual colophon containing the scribe's name and asking a prayer 
for him missing. That name was Dorbene, a most rare one, of 
which only two instances are known, both connected with 
Iona, the first of which records the death of Faelcu, son of 
Dorbene, in 729, but as we know that Faelcu died in his 
eighty-second year his father could hardly have been the scribe. 
The other Dorbene was elected abbot of Iona in 713 and died 
the same year, so that it may be regarded as almost certain that 
this book was written by him and that this copy is in his 
handwriting. We have in this codex, then, the actual hand- 
writing 2 of a contemporary of Adamnan himself, the handi- 

1 "It is to be hoped," Dr. Reeves caustically remarked, "that the doubts 
originated in a different style of research from that which made Bede's 
Columcilli an island, and Dearmach [Durrow] the same as Derry ! " 

" It may be objected," says Dr. Reeves, "that it was written by another 
person of this name, or copied by a later hand from the autograph of this 
Dorbene. The former exception is not probable, the name being almost 



COLUMCILLE 1S5 

work of the generation which succeeded Columcille, a volume 
a hundred years older than even the Book of Armagh, a 
volume which had been carried over to some of the numerous 
Irish institutions on the Continent after the break-up of Iona 
by the Northmen. There are several corrections of the 
orthography in a different and later hand, the date of which 
is fixed by Dr. Keller at 800-820, and these are evidently the 
work of a German monk, who was displeased with the peculiar 
orthography of the Irish school, and who made these emenda- 
tions after the MS. had been brought from Iona to the 
Continent. The following passage describing the last hours 
of Columcille will both serve as a specimen of Adamnan's style 
and also afford a minutely particular account of the end of this 
great man. Its accuracy can hardly be impugned as it is 
written by one who had every minute particular from eye- 
witnesses, and as the actual manuscript from which it is 
printed was copied from the author's own, either during his 
life or within less than ten years after his death. 1 

Adamnan first tells us of several premonitions which the 
saint had of his approaching end, how he, "now an old man, 
wearied with age," was borne in his waggon to view his monks 
labouring in the fields on the western slope of the island, and 
intimated to them that his end was not far off, but that lest 

unique, and found so pointedly connected with the Columbian society ; 
the latter is less probable, as the colophon in Irish MSS. is always peculiar 
to the actual scribe and likely to be omitted in transcription, as is the case 
of later MSS. of the same recension preserved in the British Museum." 
" Hoc ipsum MS. credi posset authographum Dorbbenei," says Van der 
Meer, a learned monk, "subscriptio enim ilia in rubro vix ab alio 
descriptore addita fuisset ; characteres quoque antiquitatem sapiunt soeculi 
octavi." 

1 He died in 704, and Dorbene the scribe in 713. It is necessary to be 
thus particular, even at the risk of being tedious, to correct the unlearned 
■ assertions of people who can write that in treating of the "lives of St. 
Patrick and St. Columba, one's faith is tried to the uttermost, leading not 
1 a few to deny the very existence of the two missionaries" (" Irish Druids 
1 and Religions," Borwick, p. 304) ; or the biassed dicta of men like Ledwich 
l who says that all Irish MSS. "savour of modern forgery." 



i S< i LITER. IRY HIS TOR ) ' c )F IRELAND 

their Easter should be one of grief, he would not be taken 
from them until it was over. Later on in the year he went 
out with his servant Diarmuid to inspect the granary, and was 
pleased at the two large heaps of grain which were lying there, 
and remarked that though he should be taken from his dear 
monks, vet he was glad to see that they had a supply for the 
year. 

" And," says Adamnan, " when Diarmuid his servant heard this he 
began to be sad, and said, ' Father, at this time of year you sadden 
us too often, because you speak frequently about your decease.' 
When the saint thus answered, ' I have a secret word to tell you, 
which, if you promise me faithfully not to make it known to any 
before my death, I shall be able to let you know more clearly about 
my departure.' And when his servant, on bended knees, had 
finished making this promise, the venerable man thus continued, 
' This day is called in the sacred volumes the Sabbath, which is 
interpreted Rest. And this day is indeed to me a sabbath, because 
it is my last of this present laborious life, in which, after the trouble 
of my toil, I take my rest ; for in the middle of this coming sacred 
Sunday night, I shall to use the Scripture phrase, tread the way of 
my fathers ; for now my Lord Jesus Christ deigns to invite me, to 
whom, I say, at the middle of this night, on His own invitation, I 
shall pass over ; for it was thus revealed to me by the Lord Himself.' 
His servant, hearing these sad words, begins to weep bitterly : whom 
the saint endeavoured to console as much as he was able. 

" After this the saint goes forth from the barn, and returning to 
the monastery sits down on the way, at the place where afterwards 
a cross let into a millstone, and to-day standing there, may be per- 
ceived on the brink of the road. And while the saint, wearied with 
old age, as I said before, sitting in that place was taking a rest, lo ! 
the white horse, the obedient servant who used to carry the milk- 
vessels between the monastery and the byre, meets him. It, 
wonderful to relate, approached the saint and placing its head in 
his bosom, by the inspiration of God, as I believe, for whom every 
animal is wise with the measure of sense which his Creator has 
bidden, knowing that his master was about to immediately depart 
from him, and that he would see him no more, begins to lament and 
abundantly to pour forth tears, like a human being, into the saint's 
lap, and with beslavered mouth to make moan. Which when the 
servant saw, he proceeds to drive away the tearful mourner, but the 
saint stopped him, saying, 'Allow him, allow him who loves me, to 



COLUMCILLE 18; 

pour his flood of bitterest tears into this my bosom. See, you, 
though you are a man and have a rational mind, could have in no 
way known about my departure if I had not myself lately disclosed 
it to you, but to this brute and irrational animal the Creator Himself, 
in His own way, has clearly revealed that his master is about to 
depart from him.' And saying this he blessed the sorrowful horse 
[the monastery's] servant, as it turned away from him. 

"And going forth from thence and ascending a small hill, which 
rose over the monastery, he stood for a little upon its summit, and 
as he stood, elevating both his palms, he blessed his community and 
said, ' Upon this place however narrow and mean, not only shall the 
kings of the Scots [i.e., Irish] with their peoples, but also the rulers 
of foreign and barbarous nations with the people subject to them, 
confer great and no ordinary honour. By the saints of other 
churches also, shall no common respect be accorded it.' 

" After these words, going down from the little hill and returning 
to the monastery, he sat in his cell writing a copy of the Psalms, and 
on reaching that verse of the thirty-third Psalm where it is written, 
' But they that seek the Lord shall lack no thing that is good ; ' 
'Here,' said he, 'we may close at the end of the page ; let Baithin 
write what follows.' Well appropriate for the parting saint was 
the last verse which he had written, for to him shall good things 
eternal be never lacking, while to the father who succeeded him 
[Baithin], the teacher of his spiritual sons, the following [words] 
were particularly apposite, ' Come, my sons, hearken unto me. I 
shall teach you the fear of the Lord,' since as the departing one 
desired, he was his successor not only in teaching but also in 
writing. 1 

"After writing the above verse and finishing the page, the saint 
enters the church for the vesper office preceding the Sunday ; which 
finished, he returned to his little room, and rested for the night on 
his couch, where for mattress he had a bare flag, and for pillow 
a stone, which at this day stands as a kind of commemorative 

1 " Post h:ec verba de illo descendens montieellulo, ct ad monasterium 
revertens, sedebat in tugurio Psalterium scribens ; et ad ilium tricesimi 
tertii psalmi versiculum perveniens ubi scribitur, Inquirentes autem 
Dominum non deficient omni bono, Hie, ait, in fine cessandum est 
paginae ; quae vero sequuntur Baitheneus scribat. Sancto convenienter 
congruit clecessori novissimus versiculus quern scripserat, cui numquam 
bona deficient asterna : succesori vero sequens pajtri, spiritalium doctori 
ftlioruin, Venite tilii, audite me, timorem Domini docebo vos, congruenter 
convenit ; qui, sicut decessor comraendavit, non solo ei docendo sed etiam 
scribendo successit." 



[88 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

monument beside his tomb. 1 And there, sitting, he gives his last 
mandates to the brethren, in the hearing of his servant only, saying, 
'These last words of mine I commend to you, O little children, that 
ye preserve a mutual charity with peace, and a charity not feigned 
amongst yourselves ; and if ye observe to do this according" to the 
example of the holy fathers, God, the comforter of the good, shall 
help you, and I, remaining with Him, shall make intercession for 
you, and not only the necessaries of this present life shall be 
sufficiently supplied you by Him, but also the reward of eternal 
good, prepared for the observers of things Divine, shall be rendered 
you.' Up to this point the last words of our venerable patron [when 
now] passing as it were from this wearisome pilgrimage to his 
heavenly country, have been briefly narrated. 

"After which, his joyful last hour gradually approaching, the 
saint was silent. Then soon after, when the struck bell resounded 
in the middle of the night, 2 quickly rising he goes to the church, and 
hastening more quickly than the others he entered alone, and with 
bent knees inclines beside the altar in prayer. His servant, 
Diarmuid, following more slowly, at the same moment beholds, from 
a distance, the whole church inside rilled with angelic light round 
the saint ; but as he approached the door this same light, which he had 
seen, swiftly vanished ; which light a few others of the brethren, also 
standing at a distance, had seen. Diarmuid then entering the church, 
calls aloud with a voice choked with tears, 'Where art thou, Father ?' 
And the lamps of the brethren not yet being brought, groping in 
the dark, he found the saint recumbent before the altar : raising 
him up a little, and sitting beside him, he placed the sacred head in 
his own bosom. And while this was happening a crowd of monks 
running up with lights, and seeing their father dying, begin to 
lament. And as we have learned from some who were there 
present, the saint, his soul not yet departing, with eyes upraised, 
looked round on each side, with a countenance of wondrous joy and 
gladness, as though beholding the holy angels coming to meet him. 
Diarmuid then raises up the saint's right hand to bless the band of 
monks. But the venerable father himself, too, in so far as he was 

1 It is still shown at the east end of the Cathedral in Iona, surrounded 
by an iron cage to kesp off tourists. 

2 " The saint had previously attended at the vespcrtinalis Dominiccv 
noctis missa, an office equivalent to the nocturnal vigil, and now at the 
turn of midnight the bell rings for matins, which were celebrated accord- 
ing to ancient custom a little before daybreak." — Reeves. The early bells 
were struck like gongs, not rung, hence the modern Irish for " ring the 
beal" is bain an clog, " strike the bell." 



COLUMCILLE 189 

able, was moving his hand at the same time, so that he might appear 
to bless the brethren with the motion of his hand, what he could not 
do with his voice, during his soul's departure. And after thus 
signifying his sacred benediction, he straightway breathed forth 
his life. When it had gone forth from the tabernacle of his body, 
the countenance remained so long glowing and gladdened in a 
wonderful manner by the angelic vision, that it appeared not that 
of a dead man but of a living one sleeping. In the meantime the 
whole church resounded with sorrowful lamentations." * 

Besides the lives of Columcille, written by Adamnan and 
Cummene, at least four more exist ; an anonymous life in 
Latin, printed by Colgan and erroneously supposed by him 
to be that of Cummene ; a life by John of Tinmouth, chiefly 
compiled from Adamnan, which is also printed by Colgan ; 
the old Irish life contained in four Irish MSS., namely, in the 
Leabhar Breac, in the Book of Lismore, in a vellum MS. in 
Edinburgh, and in an Irish parchment volume found by the 
Revolutionary Commissioners, during the Republic, in a 
private house in Paris, and by them presented to the Royal 
Library of that city — 

" Quae regio in terris nostri non plena laboris ! " 

This life has been printed from the Book of Lismore by 
Dr. Whitley Stokes. The last and most copious life is a 
compilation of all existing documents and poems both in 
Latin and Old Irish, and was made by order of O'Donnell 
in 1532. 

M Be it known," says the preface, " to the readers of this Life that 
it was Manus, son of Hugh, son of Hugh Roe, son of Niall Garv, son 
of Turlough of the wise O'Donnell, who ordered the part of this 
Life which was in Latin to be put into Gaelic ; and who ordered 
the part that was in difficult Gaelic to be modified, so that it might 
be clear and comprehensible to every one ; and who gathered and 
put together the parts of it that were scattered through the old 

1 This scene took place, as Dr. Reeves has shown, " just after midnight 
between Saturday the 8th and Sunday the 9th of June, in the year 597." 



190 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Books of Erin ; and who dictated it out of his own mouth with great 
labour and ;i great expenditure of time in studying how he should 
arrange all its parts in their proper places, as they are left here in 
writing by us ; and in I've and friendship for his illustrious saint, 
relative, and patron, to whom he was devoutly attached. It was in 
the Castle of Port-na-tri-namhad [Lifford] that his Life was indited, 
when were fulfilled 12 years and 20 and 500 and 1000 of the age of 
the Lord." 

This life, written in a large vellum folio, is preserved in 
the Bodleian Library at Oxford and has never yet been 
printed. 1 

The remains of Columcille, which after a three days' wake 
were interred in Iona, were left undisturbed for close upon a 
hundred years. They were afterwards disinterred and placed 
within a splendid shrine of gold and silver, which, in due time, 
became the prey of the marauding Norsemen. The belief is 
very general that his remains found their last resting-place in 
Downpatrick, along with those of St. Patrick and St. Brigit. 
The present appearance of the spot where they are supposed 
to lie, may be gathered from the indignant verses 2 of a member 
of a now defunct literary body, to which I had the honour of 
belonging some years ago, one of those numerous Irish literary 
societies which produce verses as thick as leaves in Vallombrosa. 

" I stood at a grave by the outer wall 

Of the Strangers' Church in Down, 
All lorn and lost in neglect, and crossed 

By the Church of the Strangers' frown. 
All lorn and waste, and with footsteps crossed 

The grave of our Patrons Three, 
Not a leaf to wave o'er that lonely grave 

That seemed not a grave to me ! 

1 It is to be hoped that it may soon see the light as one of the volumes 
whose publication is contemplated by the new Irish Texts Society. The 
copy of it ussd by Colgan is now back in the Franciscans' Library in 
Dublin, a beautiful vellum written for Niall 6g O'Neill. 

2 P. 50 of a little volume called " Lays and Lyrics of the Pan-Celtic 
Society," long out of print, by P. O'C. MacLaughlin. 



COLUMCILLE 191 

But a trench where some traitor was flung of yore — 

Twas " a sight for a f oeman's eye " ! 
Where Patrick still and Saint Columbkille 

And the Dove x of the Oak Tree lie. 



Those men who spoke bravely of rending chains 

(And never a fetter broke !) 
Those men who adored the flashing sword 

(When never a tocsin spoke !) 
Those little men, who are very great 

In marble and bronze, are still 
The city's pride, whilst that trench holds Bride 

And Patrick and Columbkille ! " 

1 Evidently alluding to the passage in her Irish life which says, " Her 
type among created things is as the Dove among birds, the vine among 
trees, and the sun above stars." There is a Latin distich on this grave in 
Downpatrick which I have seen somewhere, 

In burgo Duno tumulo tumulantur in uno 
Brigida Patriaus atque Columba pins. 



CHAPTER XVI 

THE FIRST SCHOOLS OF CHRISTIAN IRELAND 

St. Patrick and the early Christians of the fifth century 
spent much of their time and labour in the conversion of 
pagans and the building of churches. Columcille and the 
leading churchmen of the sixth century, on the other hand, 
gave themselves up more to the foundation of monastic 
institutions and the conduct of schools. They belonged to 
what is well known in Irish ecclesiastical history as the second 
Order of Saints. The first Order was composed of Patrick and 
his associates, bishops filled with piety, founders of churches, 
three hundred and fifty in number, mostly Franks, Romans, 
and Britons, but with some Scots [i.e. Irish] also amongst them. 
These worshipped, says the ancient " Catalogue of the Saints," 
one head — Christ, and followed one leader — Patrick. They 
had one tonsure, one celebration of the Mass, and one Easter. 
They mixed freely in the society of women, because they feared 
not the wind of temptation, and this first Order of Saints, as it 
is called, is reckoned by the Irish to have lasted during four 
reigns. 

The next Order of Saints had few bishops but many priests, ; 
this was the order to which Columcille belonged, and most of 
the saints who founded the great schools of Ireland which in 

192 



FIRST SCHOOLS OF CHRISTIAN IRELAND 193 

the following century became so flourishing and spread their 
fame throughout Europe, as those of Ciaran and Finnian and 
Brendan, and a score of others. This Order shunned all 
association with women, and would not have them in their 
monasteries. 1 These saints whilst worshipping God as their 
head, and celebrating one Easter and having one tonsure, yet 
had different rites for celebrating, and different rules for living. 
The rite with which they celebrated Mass they are said to 
have secured from the British saints, St. David, St. Gildas, and 
others. They also lasted for four reigns, or, roughly speaking, 
during the last three quarters of the sixth century. 

After these came what is called the third Order of Saints who 
appear in their time to have been pre-eminent amongst the 
other Christians, and to have been mostly anchorites, who 
lived on herbs and supported themselves by such alms as they 
were given, despising all things earthly and all things fleshly. 
They observed Easter differently, they had different tonsures, 
they had different rules of life, and different rites for cele- 
brating Mass. They are said to have numbered about a 
hundred and to have lasted down to the time of the great 
plague in 664. 

This third Order, says the writer of the "Catalogue of Saints," 
who gives their names, was holy, the second holier, but the first 
Order was most holy. " The first glowed like the sun in the 
fervour of their charity, the second cast a pale radiance like the 
moon, the third shone like the aurora. These three Orders the 
blessed Patrick foreknew, enlightened by heavenly wisdom, 
when in prophetic vision he saw at first all Ireland ablaze, and 
afterwards only the mountains on fire, and at last saw lamps 
lit in the valleys." 

By the middle of the sixth century Ireland had been honey- 
combed from shore to shore with schools, monasteries, colleges, 

1 It is a common tradition that Columcille would not allow a cow on 
Iona, because, said he, " where there is a cow there will be a woman " ! 
This tradition is entirely contradicted, however, by Adamnan's lite. 

N 



ioi LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

and foundations of all kinds belonging to the Christian com- 
munity, and books had multiplied to a marvellous extent. At 
the same time the professional bards flourished in such numbers 
that Keating says that " nearly a third of the men of Ireland 
belonged, about that period, to the poetic order." Omitting for 
the present the consideration of the bards and the non-Christian 
literature of poem and saga — mostly anonymous — which they 
produced, we must take a rapid survey of some of the most 
important of the Christian schools, whose pious professors, 
whose number, and whose learning, secured for Ireland the 
title of the Island of Saints. We have already seen how the 
three patron saints of Ireland established their schools in 
Armagh, Kildare, and Iona, and their example was followed 
by hundreds. 

St. Enda, the son of a king of Oriel, after having studied at 
some school in Great Britain (probably with St. Ninian — who 
is said to have been himself an Irishman — at his noble 
monastery of Candida Casa in Galloway, built about the 
year 400), and after travelling through various parts of 
Ireland, settled down finally about the year 483 in the 
rocky and inaccessible island of Aran Mor, and was the 
first of those holy men who have won for it the appel- 
lation of Aran of the Saints. " One hundred and twenty- 
seven saints sleep in the little square yard around Killeany 
Church " * alone, and we are told that the countless numbers 
of saints who have mingled their clay with the holy soil of 
Aran will never be known until the day of Judgment. 
Here most of the saints of the second Order repaired sooner or 
later, to be instructed by, or to hold converse with St. Enda ; 
amongst them Brendan the Voyager, whose wanderings, under 
the title of Navigatio Brendan'^ became so well known in later 
ages to all mediaeval Europe. To him also came St. Finnian 
of Clonard, who was himself celebrated in later days as the 
"Tutor of the Saints of Erin." From the remote north came 
1 Dr. Hcaly's " Ireland's Schools and Scholars," p. 169. 



FIRST SCHOOLS OF CHRISTIAN IRELAND 195 

Finnian of Moville, Columcille's first teacher, and Ciaran, the 
carpenter's son, the illustrious founder of Clonmacnois. St. 
Jarlath of Tuam was there too, with St. Carthach the elder, 
of Lismore, and with St. Keevin of Glendalough. St. 
Columcille x himself was amongst Enda's visitors, and tore 
himself away with the utmost difficulty, solacing himself by 
recourse to the Irish muse as was his wont — 

" Farewell from me to Ara's Isle, 

Her smile is at my heart no more, 
No more to me the boon is given 

With hosts of heaven to walk her shore. 

How far, alas ! how far, alas ! 

Have I to pass from Ara's view, 
To mix with men from Mona's fen, 

With men from Alba's mountains blue. 

Bright orb of Ara, Ara's sun, 

Ah ! softly run through Ara's sky, 
To rest beneath thy beam were sweeter 

Than lie where Paul and Peter lie. 

O Ara, darling of the West, 

Ne'er be he blest who loves not thee, 

O God, cut short her foeman's breath, 
Let Hell and Death his portion be. 

O Ara, darling of the West, 

Ne'er be he blest who loves not thee, 

Herdless and childless may he go 
In endless woe his doom is dree. 

O Ara, darling of the West, 

Ne'er be he blest who loves thee not, 

When angels wing from heaven on high 
And leave the sky for this dear spot." 2 

1 There is a story of Columcille when in Aran discovering the grave 
of an "abbot of Jerusalem" who had come to see Enda, and died there, 
printed by Kuno Meyer from Rawlinson B. 512 in the " Gaelic Journal," 
vol. iv. p. 162. 

2 Literally : " Farewell from me to Ara, it is it anguishes my heart not to 
be in the west among her waves, amid groups of the saints of heaven. It 
is far, alas ! it is far, alas ! I have been sent from Ara West, out towards 



196 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Another early school was that founded by St. Finnian at 
Cluain Eraird, better known under its corrupt form Clonard, 
a spot hard by the river Boyne, to which students from both 
north and south resorted in great numbers. Finnian, who 
was of the Clanna Rury, or Irian race, had been baptized by 
Bishop Fortchern, who — so quickly did the Christian cause 
progress — was a grandson of King Laeghaire, who withstood 
St. Patrick. This Fortchern, too, like Brigit's favourite 
bishop, was a skilled artificer in bronze and metal, a calling 
to which many of the early saints evinced a strong bias. 
Clonard even during Finnian's lifetime became a great school, 
and three thousand students are said to have been gathered 
round it, amongst them the so-called Twelve Apostles of Erin. 
These are Ciaran of Clonmacnois and Ciaran of Saigher, who 
is patron saint of Ossory ; Brendan of Birr, the " prophet," 
and Brendan of Clonfert, the "navigator"; Columba of 
Tir-da-glass and Columcille ; Mobhi of Glasnevin and — 
infaustum nomen ! — Rodan of Lothra or Lorrha ; Senanus of 
Iniscathy, whose name is known to the lovers of the poet 
Moore ; Ninnidh of Loch Erne ; Lasserian, and St. Cainnech 
of Kilkenny, known in Scotland as Kenneth, and second in 
that country only to St. Columcille and St. Brigit in popularity. 
The school of Clonard was founded about the year 520, when, 
to quote the rather jingling hymn from St. Finnian's office — 

" Reversus in Clonardiam 
Ad cathedram lecturae 
Opponit diligentiam 
Ad studium scripturas." 

the population of Mona to visit the Albanachs. Ara sun, oh Ara sun, my 
affection lies buried in her in the west, it is the same to be beneath her 
pure soil as to be beneath the soil of Paul and Peter. Ara blessed, O 
Ara blessed, woe to him who is hostile to her, may he be given for it 
shortness of life and hell. Ara blessed, O Ara blessed, woe to him who is 
hostile to her, may their cattle decay and their children, and be he himself 
on the other side (of this life) in evil plight. Ara blessed, O Ara blessed, 
woe to him who is hostile to her," etg, 



FIRST SCHOOLS OF CHRISTIAN IRELAND 197 

The numbers who attended his teaching are given in another 

verse — 

" Trium virorum millium 
Sorte lit doctor humilis, 
Verbi his fudit fluvium 
Ut fons emanans rivulis." 

Like all the other early Irish foundations which attained to 
wealth and dignity before the ninth century, Clonard suffered 
in proportion to its fame. It was after that date plundered and 
destroyed twelve times, and was fourteen times burnt down 
either wholly or in part. That being so, it is not much to be 
wondered at that there only remains a single surviving literary 
work of this school, which is the " Mystical Interpretation of 
the Ancestry of our Lord Jesus Christ," by St. Aileran the 
Wise, one of Finnian's successors, who died of the great plague 
in 664. This piece, like so many others, was found in the 
Swiss monastery of St. Gall, whither it had been brought by 
some monks from Ireland. The editors who printed it for the 
Benedictines in the seventeenth century say that, although the 
writer did not belong to their Order, they publish it because 
he " unfolded the meaning of sacred scripture with so much 
learning and ingenuity that every student of the sacred 
volume, and especially preachers of the Divine Word, will 
regard the publication as most acceptable." The learned 
editors could have hardly paid the Irish writer a higher 
compliment. "A Short Moral Explanation of the Sacred 
Names " is another still existing fragment of Aileran's, and 
"whether we consider the style of the latinity, the learning, 
or the ingenuity of the writer," says Dr. Healy, " it is equally 
marvellous and equally honourable to the school of Clonard." 
Aileran is said to have also written lives of St. Patrick, St. 
Brigit, and St. Fechin of Fore, and to be the original author 
of a litany, part Irish, part Latin, preserved in the Yellow 
Book of Lecan. 

Another great Irish college was Clonfert on the Shannon, 



193 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

founded about the year 556 by Brendan the Navigator, who, 
like Finnian, came of the Irian race, being descended from 
Fergus mac Roy. 1 He was born towards the close of the 
fifth century, and his school, too, became very famous, having, 
it is said, produced as many as three thousand monks. The 
influence of the Navigatlo Brendani^ by whomsoever written, 
was immense, and was felt through all Europe, so that in 
many of the great continental libraries good MS. copies of 
it, sometimes very ancient, may be found. 2 But perhaps 
Brendan's grand-nephew and pupil may have indirectly in- 
fluenced European literature in a still more important manner. 
This was Fursa, afterwards St. Fursa, whose visions were 
known all over Ireland, Great Britain, and France. There 
can be no doubt about the substantial accuracy of St. Fursa's 
lite, for Bede himself, who dedicates a good deal of space to 
Fursa's visions,3 refers to. it. It must have been written within 
ten or fifteen years after his death, because it refers to the 
plague and the great eclipse of the sun which happened last 
year^ that is 664. Now Dante was acquainted with Bede's 
writings, for he expressly mentions him, and Bede's account 
of Fursa and Fursa's own life may have been familiar to him, 
and furnished him with the groundwork of part of the Divine 
Comedy of which it seems a kind of prototype.4 

1 See p. 69, note. 

2 It has been edited both by a Frenchman, M. Jubinal, and a German, Karl 
Schroeder, from eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth century MSS. preserved 
in Paris, Leipsic, and Wolfenbuttel, and by Cardinal Moran from, I believe, 
a ninth-century one in the Vatican. Giraldus Cambrensis alludes to it as 
well known in his time, " Haec autem si quis audire gestierit qui de vita 
Brendani scriptus est libellum legat" ("Top. Hib.," II. ch. 43). There 
is a copy of Brendan's acts in the so-called Book of Kilkenny in Marsh's 
Library, Dublin, a MS. of probably the fourteenth century. 

3 " Eccles. Hist.," lib. iii. c. 19. He calls him " Furseus, verbo et actibus 
clarus sed et egregiis insignis virtutibus," and dedicates five pages of Mayer 
and Lumby's edition to an account of him and his visions. 

4 Father O'Hanlon, in his great work on the Irish saints, has pointed 
out a large number of close parallels between Fursa's vision and Dante's 
poem which seem altogether too striking to be fortuitous. (See vol. i. 



FIRST SCHOOLS OF CHRISTIAN IRELAND 199 

Brendan's own adventures and his view of hell, which he 
was shown by the devil, may also have been known to Dante. 
Brendan prepared three vessels with thirty men in each, some 
clerics, some laymen, and with these, says his Irish life in 
the Book of Lismore, he sailed to seek the Promised Land, 
which, evidently influenced by the old pagan traditions of 
Moy Mell x and Hy Brassil, he expected to find as an island 
in the Western Sea, and so says his Irish life poetically — 

11 Brendan, son of Finnlug, sailed over the wave- voice of the 
strong-maned sea, and over the storm of the green-sided waves, 
and over the mouths of the marvellous awful bitter ocean, where 
they saw the multitude of the furious red-mouthed monsters with 
abundance of the great sea-whales. And they found beautiful 
marvellous islands, yet they tarried not therein." 

Like Sindbad in the Arabian tales, 2 they land upon the back 
of a great whale as if it had been solid land. There they 
celebrated Easter. They endured much peril from the sea. 
" On a certain day, as they were on the marvellous ocean " — 
this adjective is strongly indicative of the spirit in which the 
Celt regards the works of nature — " they beheld the deep bitter 
streams and the vast black whirlpools of the strong-maned sea, 
and in them their vessels were being constrained to founder 
because of the greatness of the storm." Brendan, however, 
cried to the sea, " It is enough for thee, O mighty sea, to 
drown me alone, but let this folk escape thee," and on hearing 

pp. 1 15-120.) There are a poem and a litany attributed to St. Fursa in 
the MS. H. r. 11. in Trinity College, Dublin. The visions of Purgatory 
seen by Dryhthelm, a monk of Melrose, as recorded by Bede, which are 
later than St. Fursa's vision, are conceived very much in the same style, 
only are much more doctrinal in their purgatorial teaching. " Tracing 
the course of thought upwards," says Sir Francis Palgrave ("History of 
Normandy and England "), " we have no difficulty in deducing the poetic 
genealogy of Dante's ' Inferno ' to the Milesian Fursieus." 

1 See above, p. 97. 

-The same story, as Whitley Stokes points out, is told in two ninth- 
century lives of St. Machut, so that a teftth-Ceiitufy version of Sindbad's 
first voyage cannot have been the origin of it. 



200 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

his cry the sea grew calm. It was after this that Brendan got 
a view of hell. 

"On a certain day," says the Irish Life, "that they were on the 
sea, the devil came in a form old, awful, hideous, foul, hellish, and 
sat on the rail of the vessel before Brendan, and none of them saw 
him save Brendan alone. Brendan asked him why he had come 
before his proper time, that is, before the time of the great resurrec- 
tion. ' For this have I come,' said the devil, 'to seek my punishment 
in the deep closes of this black, dark sea.' Brendan inquired of him, 
' What is this, where is that infernal place ? ' ' Sad is that,' said the 
devil ; ' no one can see it and remain alive afterwards.' Howbeit the 
devil there revealed the gate of hell to Brendan, and Brendan beheld 
that rough, hot prison full of stench, full of flame, full of filth, full of 
the camps of the poisonous demons, full of wailing and screaming 
and hurt and sad cries and great lamentations and moaning and 
handsmiting of the sinful folks, and a gloomy, mournful life in hearts 
of pain, in igneous prisons, in streams of the rows of eternal fire, in 
the cup of eternal sorrow and death, without limit, without end ; in 
black, dark swamps, in fonts of heavy flame, in abundance of woe 
and death and torments, and fetters, and feeble wearying combats, 
with the awful shouting of the poisonous demons, in a night ever- 
dark, ever-cold, ever-stinking, ever-foul, ever-misty, ever-harsh, 
ever-long, ever-stifling, deadly, destructive, gloomy, fiery-haired, of 
the loathsome bottom of hell. On sides of mountains of eternal 
fire, without rest, without stay, were hosts of demons dragging the 
sinners into prisons . . . black demons ; stinking fires ; streams of 
poison ; cats scratching ; hounds rending ; dogs baying ; demons 
yelling ; stinking lakes ; great swamps ; dark pits ; deep glens ; high 
mountains ; hard crags ; . . . winds bitter, wintry ; snow frozen, 
ever-dropping ; flakes red, fiery ; faces base, darkened ; demons 
swift, greedy ; tortures vast, various." r 

This is one of the earliest attempts in literature at the pour- 
trayal of an Inferno. 

1 This is evidently the passage upon which Keating's description of hell 
in the " Three Shafts of Death," Leabh. III. allt. ix., x., xi., is modelled. He 
quite outdoes his predecessor in declamation and exuberance of alliterative 
adjectives. Compare also the description in the vision of Adamnan of the 
infernal regions as it is elaborated in the copy in the Leabhar Breac, in 
contradistinction to the more sober colouring" of the older Leabhar na 
h-Uidhre. 



FIRST SCHOOLS OF CHRISTIAN IRELAND 201 

After a seven-years' voyage Brendan returned home to his 
own country without having found his Earthly Paradise, and 
his people and his folk at home " brought him," says the Irish 
Life, "treasures and gifts as if they were giving them to 
God " ! 

His foster-mother St. Ita now advised him not to put forth 
in search of that glorious land in those dead stained skins which 
formed his currachs, for it was a holy land he sought, and he 
should look for it in wooden vessels. Then Brendan built 
himself "a great marvellous vessel, distinguished and huge." 
He first sailed to Aran to consort with St. Enda, but after a 
month he heaved anchor and sailed once more into the 
West. 

He reaches the Isle of Paradise after many adventures, and is 
invited on shore by an old man " without any human raiment, 
but all his body full of bright white feathers like a dove 
or a sea-mew, and it was almost the speech of an angel that 
he had." " O ye toilsome men," he said, " O hallowed 
pilgrims, O folk that entreat the heavenly rewards, O ever- 
weary life expecting this land, stay a little now from your 
labour." The land is described in terms that forcibly record 
the delights of the pagan Elysium of Moy Mell, and prove how 
intimately the Brendan legend is bound up with primitive pre- 
Christian mythological beliefs. " The delightful fields of the 
land " are described as " radiant, famous, lovable," — " a land 
odorous, flower-smooth, blessed, a land many-melodied, musical, 
shouting-for-joy, unmournful." " Happy," said the old man, 
"shall he be with well-deservingness and with good deeds, 
whom Brandan, son of Finnlug, shall call into union with him 
on that side to inhabit for ever and ever the island whereon we 
stand." 

But better known — at least in ecclesiastical history — than 
even St. Brendan, is St. Cummian, surnamed " fada " or the 
Long, who was one of his successors in the school of Clonfert, 
and who perished in or a little before the great plague of 664. 



202 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

There are two hymns, one by himself in Latin, 1 and one in 
Irish by his tutor, Colman Ua Cluasaigh [Clooasy] of Cork, 
preserved in the " Liber Hymnorum." But his great achieve- 
ment was his celebrated letter on the Paschal question addressed 
to his friend Segienus, the abbot of Iona. The question of 
when to celebrate Easter day was one which long sundered 
the British and Irish Churches from the rest of Europe, and 
has, as students of ecclesiastical history know, given rise to all 
sorts of conjectures as to the independence of these churches. 
The charge against the Irish was that they celebrated Easter 
on any day from the fourteenth to the twentieth day of the 
moon, even on the fourteenth if it should happen to be Sunday, 
but the fourteenth was a Jewish festival and the Council of Nice 
had, in 325, declared it to be unlawful to celebrate the Christiai 
Easter on a Jewish festival. 2 The Irish had obtained their own 
doctrine of Easter from the East, through Gaul, which was 
largely open to Eastern influence ; also the Irish used the old 
Roman cycle of 84 years, not the newer and more correct 
Alexandrian one of 19 years. The consequence was the 
scandal of having different Churches of Christendom celebrating 
Easter on different days, and some mourning when others were 

1 Beginning : — 

" Celebra Juda festa Christi gaudia 
Apostulorum exultans memoria. 

Claviculari Petri primi pastoris 
Piscium rete evangelii corporis 
Alleluia." 

This hymn, says Dr. Todd, " bears evident marks of the high antiquity 
claimed for it, and there seem no reasonable grounds for doubting its 
authenticity." 

2 " The correct system lays down three principles. First, Easter day 
must be always a Sunday, never on but next after the fourteenth day of the 
moon ; secondly, that fourteenth day of the full moon should be that 
on or next after the vernal equinox ; and thirdly, the equinox itself was 
invariably assigned to the 21st of March" (Dr. Healy's " Ireland's Schools 
and Scholars," p. 234). At Rome the 18th had been regarded as the equinox ; 
St. Patrick, however, rightly laid it down that the equinox took place on 
the 2ist. 



FIRST SCHOOLS OF CHRISTIAN IRELAND 203 

feasting, a scandal which the Epistle ofCummian was designed 
to put an end to. 

" I call this letter," says Professor G. Stokes, 1 " a marvellous con- 
position because of the vastness of its learning ; it quotes besides the 
Scriptures and Latin authors, Greek writers like Origen, and Cyril, 
Pachomius the head and reformer of Egyptian monasticism, and 
Damascius the last of the celebrated neo-Platonic philosophers of 
Athens, who lived about the year 500, and wrote all his works in 
Greek. Cummian discusses the calendars of the Macedonians, 
Hebrews, and Copts, giving us the Hebrew, Greek, and Egyptian 
names of months and cycles, and tells us that he had been sent as 
one of a deputation of learned men a few years before to ascertain 
the practice of the Church of Rome. When they came to Rome 
they lodged in one hospital with a Greek and a Hebrew, an Egyptian, 
and a Scythian, who told them that the whole world celebrated the 
Roman and not the Irish Easter." 

Cummian throughout this letter displays the true spirit of a 
scholar, he humbly apologises for his presumption in addressing 
such holy men, and calls God to witness that he is actuated by 
no spirit of pride or contempt for others. When the new 
cycle of 532 years was first introduced into Ireland he did not 
at once accept it, but held his peace and took no side in the 
matter, because he did not think himself wiser than the 
Hebrews, Greeks, and Latins, nor did he venture to disdain 
the food he had not yet tasted. So he retired for a whole year 
into the study of the question, to examine for himself the facts 
of history, the nature of the various cycles in use, and the 
testimony of Scripture. 

There is another book, " De Mensura Pcenitentiarum," 
ascribed to Cummian and printed in Migne ; and there is a 
poem on his death by his tutor, St. Colman, who was carried 
off by the same plague a short time after him. 2 

1 Late professor of Ecclesiastical History in Dublin University. See 
"Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy," May, 1892, p. 195. 

2 The first verse runs thus : — 

" Ni beir Luimneach for a druim 
Di sil Muimhneach i Leth Cuinn 
Marban in noi bu tin do 
Do Cuimmine mac Fiachno " — 



204 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

The great institution presided over by St. Cummian was 
Hourishing in full vigour at the time of the first incursions of 
the Northmen. It is frequently mentioned in the Irish Annals 
as a place of note and learning. Turgesius the Dane, attracted 
by so fair a booty, promptly plundered and burnt it to the 
ground. Again and again it was rebuilt, and again and again 
the same fate befell it. The monastery and the school 
survived, however, until the coming of the Normans, and the 
"Four Masters" under the year 1170 record the death of one 
of its teachers, Cormac O'Lumlini, whom they pathetically 
designate u the remnant of the sages of Erin," for by this time 
Clonfert had been six times burnt and four times plundered. 

Even a greater school, however, than Clonfert, was that 
founded by St. Ciaran [Keeran], the carpenter's son, beside a 
curve in the Shannon, at Clonmacnois, not far from Athlone, 
about the year 544. He had himself been educated by St. 
Finnian of Clonard, and he died at the early age of thirty- 
three, immediately after laying the foundations of what was 
destined to become the greatest Christian college in Ireland. 1 

The monastery and cells of St. Ciaran rapidly grew into a 
city, to which students flocked from far and near. In one 
sense the College of Clonmacnois had an advantage over all its 
rivals, for it belonged to no one race or clan. Its abbots and 
teachers were drawn from many different tribes, and situated 
as it was, in almost the centre of the island, all the great races, 
Erimonians, Eberians. Irians, and Ithians, resorted to it 
impartially, and it became a real university. There the 
O'Conors, kings of Connacht, had their own separate church ; 
there the Southern Ui Neill reared apart their own cathedral ; 
there the MacDermots, princes of Moylurg, and the 

" The lower Shannon bears not upon its surface, of Munster race in Leath 
Cuinn, any corpse in boat, equal to him, to Cuimin, son of Fiachna." His 
corpse was apparently brought home by water. 

1 There is a verse ascribed to Ciaran in the " Chronicon Scotorum," 
beginning " Darerca mo mhathair-si," and a poem ascribed to him in 
H. I. 11. Trinity College, Dublin. 



FIRST SCHOOLS OF CHRISTIAN IRELAND 205 

O'Kellys, kings of Hy Mainy, had each their own mortuary 
chapels ; there the Southerns built one round tower, the 
O'Rorkes another ; and there too the Mac Carthys of Munster 
had a burial-place. Who, even at this day, has not heard of 
the glories of Clonmacnois, of its ruins, its graves, its crosses ; 
of its churchyard, which possesses a greater variety of sculp- 
tured and decorated stones than perhaps all the rest of Ireland 
put together, and of which the Irish poet beautifully sang so 
long ago — 

" In a quiet watered land, a land of roses, 
Stands St. Ciaran's city fair, 
And the warriors of Erin in their famous generations, 
Slumber there. 

There beneath the dewy hill-side sleep the noblest 

Of the clan of Conn, 
Each below his stone, with name in branching Ogham, 

And the sacred knot thereon. 

There they laid to rest the seven kings of Tara, 

There the sons of Cairbre sleep, 
Battle-banners of the Gael that in Ciaran's Plain of Crosses, 

Now their final hosting keep. 

And in Clonmacnois they laid the men of Teffia, 

And right many a lord of Breagh. 
Deep the sod above Clan Creide and Clan Conaill, 

Kind in hall and fierce in fray. 

Many and many a son of Conn the Hundred-Fighter 

In the red earth lies at rest, 
Many a blue eye of Clan Colman the turf covers, 

Many a swan-white breast." l 

1 Thus admirably translated by my friend Mr. Rolleston in " Poems 
and Ballads of Young Ireland," Dublin, 1888, a little volume which seems 
to have been the precursor of a considerable literary movement in Ireland. 
Literally : " The city of Ciaran of Clonmacnois, a dewy-bright red-rose 
town, of its royal seed, of lasting fame, the hosts in the pure-streamed 
peaceful town. The nobles of the clan of Conn are in the flag-laid brown- 
sloped churchyard, a knot or a branch above each body and a fair correct 
1 name in Ogam. The sons of Cairbre over the seven territories, the seven 
I great princes from Tara, many a sheltering standard on a field of battle is 



306 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Some of the most distinguished scholars of Ireland, if not of 
Europe, were educated at Clonmacnois, including Alcuin, the 
most learned man at the French court, who remembered his 
alma mater so affectionately that he extracted from King 
Charles of France a gift of fifty shekels of silver, to which he 
added fifty more of his own, and sent them to the brotherhood 
of Clonmacnois as a gift, with a quantity of olive oil for the 
Irish bishops. His affectionate letter to " his blessed master 
and pious father " Colgan, chief professor at Clonmacnois, is 
still extant. 

This Colgu, or Colgan, himself wrote a book in Irish, called 
"The Besom of Devotion," which appears to be now lost. 
A litany of his still remains. The great eleventh-century 
annalist, Tighearnach, was an alumnus of Clonmacnois. So, 
too, was the reputed author of the " Chronicon Scotorum," 
O'Malone, in 1123. The Annals of Clonmacnois was one 
of the books in the hands of the " Four Masters," but it is now 
lost, and a different book called by the same name (the original 

with the people of Ciaran's Plain of Crosses. The men of Teffia, the 
tribes of Breagh were buried beneath the clay of Cluain[macnois]. The 
valiant and hospitable are yonder beneath the sod, the race of Creide and 
the Clan Conaill. Numerous are the sons of Conn of the Battles, with red 
clay and turf covering them, many a blue eye and white limb under the 
earth of Clan Colman's tomb." The first verses run in modern spelling 
thus : 

" Cathair Chiarain Chluain-mic-Nois 

Baile drucht-solas, dearg-rois. 

Da shil rioghraidh is buan bladh 

Sluaigh fa'n sith-bhaile sruth-ghlan. 

Ataid uaisle cloinne Chuinn 
Fa'n reilig leacaigh learg-dhuinn 
Snaoidhm no Craobh os gach cholain 
Agus ainm caomh ceart Oghaim." 

The clan of Conn here mentioned are principally the Ui Neill and their 
correlatives. Teffia is something equivalent to Longford, and Breagh to 
Meath. Clan Creide are the O' Conors of Connacht, and the Clan Colman 
principally means the O'Melaughlins and their kin. " Colman mor, a quo 
Clann Cholmain ie Maoileachlain cona fflaithibh " (Mac Firbis MS. Book I; 
of Genealogies, p. 161 of O'Curry's transcript). Colman was the brother || 
of King Diarmuid, who was slain in 552. 



FIRST SCHOOLS OF CHRISTIAN IRELAND 20; 

of which has also perished) was translated into English by 
Macgeoghegan in 1627. x The celebrated Leabhar na h-Uidhre 
[Lowar na Heera] or " Book of the Dun Cow," compiled 
about the year 11 00, emanated from this centre of learning. 
Like Clonfert, and every other home of Irish civilisation, the 
city of Clonmacnois fell a prey to the barbarians. The North- 
men plundered it or burnt it, or both, on ten separate occasions. 
Turgesius, their leader, set up his wife Ota as a kind of 
priestess to deliver oracles from its high altar; 2 and some of 
the Irish themselves, reduced to a state of barbarism by the 
horrors of the period, laid their sacrilegious hands upon its 
holy places ; and afterwards the English of Athlone stepped in 
and completed its destruction. It now remains only a ruin and 
a name. 

Another very celebrated school was that of Bangor, on 
Belfast Loch, founded by Comgall, the friend of Columcille, 
between 550 and 560. It soon became crowded with scholars, 
and next to Armagh it was certainly the greatest school of the 
northern province, and produced men of the highest eminence 
at home and abroad. Its fame reached far across the sea. St. 
Bernard called it a a noble institution, which was inhabited by 
many thousands of monks;" and Joceline of Furness, in the 
twelfth century, called it "a fruitful vine breathing the odour 
of salvation, whose offshoots extended not only over all Ireland, 
but far beyond the seas into foreign countries, and filled many 
lands with its abounding fruitfulness." 

The most distinguished of Bangor's sons of learning were 
Columbanus, the evangeliser of portions of Burgundy and Lom- 
bardy ; St. Gall, the evangeliser of Switzerland ; Dungal, the 
astronomer ; and later on, in the twelfth century, Malachy 

1 Published a couple of years ago by the late Father Murphy, S.J., for 
the Royal Antiquarian Society of Ireland. 

2 " Airgid cealla ardnaomh Ereann uile ocus as ar altoir Cluana mac Nois 
d do bhereadh Otta bean Tuirghes uirigheall do gach ae[n]" (Mac Firbis 
\ MS. of Genealogies, p. 768 in O'Curry's transcript). Also " Gael and 
1 Gall," p. 13. 



2o8 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

O'Morgair, who, though not known as an author, distinguished 
himself in the province of Church discipline. 

The lives of St. Columbanus and of St. Gall belong rather 
to foreign than to Irish history, but we may glance at them 
again in another place. Dungal, poet, astronomer, and 
theologian, was also like them, for a time, an exile. His identity 
is uncertain ; the "Four Masters" mention twenty-two persons 
of the same name between the years 744 and 10 15, but his 
Irish nationality is certain, and he calls himself " Hibernicus 
exul " in his poem addressed to his patron Charlemagne. He 
appears to have died in the Irish monastery at Bobbio, in North 
Italy, to which he left his library, and amongst other books the 
celebrated Antiphonary of Bangor, his possession of which seems 
to warrant us in supposing that Bangor was his original college. 
He appears to have been a close friend of Charlemagne's, and 
in 811 he wrote him his celebrated letter, explanatory of the 
two solar eclipses which had taken place the year before. The 
emperor could apparently find at his court no other astronomer 
of sufficient learning to explain the phenomena. Later on we 
find Dungal, at the request of Lothaire, Charlemagne's grand- 
son, opening a school at Pavia to civilise the Lombards, to 
which institution great numbers of students flocked from 
every quarter. Dungal may, in fact, be regarded as the 
founder of the University of Pavia. His greatest effort whilst 
in Pavia was his work against the Iconoclasts. Dungal's attack 
upon the cultured Spanish bishop, Claudius, who championed 
them, as it was the first, so it appears to have been the ablest 
blow struck ; and Western iconoclasm seemed to have for the 
time received a mortal wound from his hand. 1 Besides his long 
eulogy on his friend and patron Charlemagne, several other smaller 

1 Claudius was Bishop of Turin, and a man of much culture and ability ; 
so disgusted was he with the congregation of ignorant Italian bishops — 
culture was then at the lowest ebb in Italy — before whom he argued his 
case that he called them a congregatio asinorum, and says Zimmer, " Ein 
Ire, Dungal, musste fur sje die Vertheidigung des Bjlderdienstes ubeiv 
nehmen." 



FIRST SCHOOLS OF CHRISTIAN IRELAND 209 

poems of his survive, showing him to have been — like almost 
all Irishmen of that date — no mere pedant and student. 

Like almost all the more famous and attractive of the Irish 
colleges, Bangor suffered fearfully from the attacks of the 
northern pirates, who, according to St. Bernard, slew there as 
many as nine hundred monks. " Not a cross, not even a 
stone, 1 ' says Dr. Healy, " now remains to mark the site of the 
famous monastery, whose crowded cloisters for a thousand 
years overlooked the pleasant islets and broad waters of Inver 
Becne." It has shared the fate of its compeers : 

etiam periere ruince. 

It would prove too tedious to enumerate the other Irish 
colleges which dotted the island in the sixth and seventh 
centuries. The most remarkable of them besides those that 
I have mentioned were Moville, at the head of Loch Cuan 
or Strangford Lough, in the County Down, founded by St. 
Finnian, who was born before 500, and who afterwards became 
known as Frigidius, Bishop of Lucca, in Switzerland. Colman, 
vvhose hymn is preserved in the " Liber Hymnorum," and 
Marianus Scotus, the Chronicler, were alumni of Moville. 

Cluain Eidnech, or Clonenagh, the " Ivy Meadow," was 
founded by St. Fintan, near Maryborough, in the present 
Oueen's County. Angus the Culdee, who with its Abbot 
Maelruain is said to have composed the Martyrology of 
Tallaght prior to 792, was its greatest ornament. Of his 
Irish works we shall have more to say later on. Clonenagh 
suffered so much from the Northmen, that its great foundation 
had already in the twelfth century dwindled to a parochial 
church ; in the nineteenth it is a green mound. 

Glendalough, founded by the celebrated St. Kevin, 1 became 
also a college of much note. St. Moling, to whom a great 

1 Pronounced " Keevin," not "Kevin." The Irish form is Caoimh- 
[ = keev, "aoi" being in Irish always pronounced like ee, and " mh " like v] 
ghinn, the " g " being aspirated is scarcely pronounced. 

o 



2 10 II /'/: A'. \R Y HIS T( >R ) ' ( )F IRELAND 

number of Irish poems 1 arc ascribed, was one of his successors 
ill the seventh century, and his life seems to have taken 
peculiar hold upon the imagination of the populace, for he has 
more poems — many of them evident forgeries — attributed to 
him than we find ascribed to any of the saints except to 
Columcille ; and he has a place amongst the four great 
prophets of Erin. 2 It was he who procured the remission of 

1 The celebrated Evangelistarium, or Book of Moling, was, with its case 
or cover, deposited in Trinity College, Dublin, in the last century by the 
Kavanaghs of Bonis. Giraldus Cambrensis classes Moling as a prophet 
with Merlin, and as a saint with Patrick and Columba. One of the 
prophecies assigned to him is given by O' Curry, MS. Mat., p. 427. The 
oldest copy of any of Moling's poems is in the monastery of St. Paul in 
Carinthia, contained in a MS. originally brought from Augia Dives, or 
Reichenau. It is in the most perfect metre, and runs : — 

" Is en immo niada sas 
Is nau tholl diant eslinn guas, 
Is lestar fas, is crann crin 
Nach digni toil ind rig tuas." 

(" He is a bird round which a trap closes, 
He is a leaky bark in weakness of peril, 
He is an empty vessel, he is a withered tree 
Who doth not do the will of the King above.") 

/.£., " Is ean urn a n-iadhann sas / is nau (long) thollta darb' eislinn guais. 
Is leastar fas (folamh) "is crann crion, [an te] nach ndeanann toil an righ 
shuas." 

The poem is also given in the Book of Leinster, and contains eight 
verses. One would perhaps have expected the third line to run, " is crann 
crin is lestar fas." The St. Paul MS., which is of the eighth century, con- 
tains two of Molling's poems, and they scarcely differ in wording or 
orthography from copies in MSS. six hundred years later. 

2 Patrick, Columcille, and Berchan of Clonsast, are the others. Even 
the English settlers had heard of their fame. Baron Finglas, writing in 
Henry YIII.'s reign, says, "The four saints, St. Patrick, St. Columb, St. 
Braghane [i.e., Berchan], and St. Moling, which many hundred years 
agone made prophecy that Englishmen should have conquered Ireland, 
and said that the said Englishmen should keep their owne laws, and as 
soon as they should leave, and fall to Irish order, then they should decay, 
the experience whereof is proved true." (From Ryan's " History and 
Antiquities of the co. Carlow," p. 03.) A still more curious allusion to the 
four Irish prophets is one in the Book of Howth, a small vellum folio of 
the sixteenth century, written in thirteen different hands, published in the 
Calendar of State Papers. " Men say," recounts the anonymous writer, 

'that the Irishmen had four prophets in their time, Patrick, Marten [sic], 



FIRST SCHOOLS OF CHRISTIAN IRELAND 211 

the Boru tribute from King Finnachta about the year 693. 
Glendalough was plundered and destroyed by the Danes five 
times over, within a period of thirty years, yet it to some 
extent recovered itself, and the great St. Laurence O'Toole, 
who was Archbishop of Dublin at the coming of the Normans, 
had been there educated. 

Lismore, the great college of the south-east, was founded by 
St. Carthach in the beginning of the seventh century, who left 
behind him, according to O'Curry, a monastic rule of 580 
lines of Irish verse. 1 Cathal, or Cathaldus, born in the 
beginning of the seventh century, who afterwards became 
bishop and patron saint of Tarentum, in Italy, was a student, 
and perhaps professor in this college. The office of St. Cathal- 
dus states that Gauls, Angles, Irish, and Teutons, and very 
many people of neighbouring nations came to hear his lectures 
at Lismore, and Morini's life of him expresses in poetic terms 
the tradition of Lismore's greatness. 2 St. Cuanna, another 
member of Lismore, was probably the author of the Book or 

Brahen [i.e., Berchan], and Collumkill. Whosoever hath books in Irish 
written every of them speak of the fight of this conquest, and saith that 
long strife and oft fighting shall be for this land, and the land shall be 
harried and stained with great slaughter of men, but the Englishmen fully 
shall have the mastery a little before doomsday, and that land shall be 
from sea to sea i-castled and fully won, but the Englishmen shall be after 
that well feeble in the land and disdained ; so Barcan [Berchan] saith : 
that through a king shall come out of the wild mountains of St. Patrick's, 
that much people shall slew and afterwards break a castle in the wooden 
of Affayle, with that the Englishmen of Ireland shall be destroyed by 
that." The prophecy that the Englishmen fully shall have the mastery a 
little before Doomsday is amusingly equivocal ! 

1 Described in O'Curry's MS. Materials, p. 375, but I do not know 
where the original is. 

2 Quoted in O'Halloran's " History of Ireland," bk. ix. chap. 4. 
"Celcres vastissima Rheni / jam vadaTeutonici, jam deseruere Sicambri ; / 
Mi ttit ab extremo gelidos Aquilone Boemos / Albis et Arvenni coeunt, 
Batavi-que frequentes, / Et quicunque coluntalta sub rupe Gehennas. / . . . 
Certatim hi properunt diverso tramite ad urbem / Lesmoriam [Lismore] 
juvenis primos ubi transigit annos." See also corroborative proof of the 
numbers of Gauls, Teutons, Swiss, and Italians visiting Lismore about the 
year 700 in Usshcr's "Antiquities," Works, vi., p. 303. 



2i2 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Cuanach, now lost, but often quoted in the Annals of 
Ulster. He died in 650, and the book is not quoted after 
the year 628, which makes it more than probable that he was 
the author. Lismore was burnt down by the Danes, but 
recovered itself in the general revival of native institutions that 
took place prior to the conquest of the Anglo-Normans. 
However, when these latter came upon the Irish stage it fared 
ill with Lismore. Strongbow, indeed, was bought off from 
burning its churches in 1 173 by a great sum of money, but in 
the following year his son, in spite of this, plundered the place. 
Four years later the English forces again attacked it, plundered 
it, and set it on fire. In 1207 the whole town and all about it 
was finally consumed, so that at the present day not a vestige 
remains behind of its schools, its cloisters, or its twenty 
churches. 

Cork college was founded by St. Finnbarr towards the 
end of the sixth century. One of its professors, Colman 
O'Cluasaigh, who died in 664, wrote the curious Irish hymn 
or prayer mixed with Latin, preserved in the Book of 
Hymns. 1 The place was burned four times between 822 and 
840, but in the twelfth century the ancient monastery which 
had fallen into decay was rebuilt by Cormac Mac Carthy, king 

1 Reprinted by Windisch in his " Irische Texte," Heft I., p. 5. The 
first verse runs — 

" Sen De don fe for don te 
Mac maire ron feladar ! 
For a f hoessam dun anocht 
Cia tiasam, cain temadar," 

which is in no wise easy to translate ! There are fifty-six verses not all in 
the same metre. Another acknowledges St. Patrick as a patron saint, it 
would run thus, in modernised orthography — 

" Beannacht ar erlam [patriin] Padraig 
Go naomhaib Eireann uime 
Beannacht ar an gcathair-se 
Agus ar chach bhfuil innti ! 

A three-quarter Latin verse runs thus — 

" Regem regum rogamus/ in nostris sermonibus 
Anacht Noe a luchtlach/ diluvi temporibus," 



I 



FIRST SCHOOLS OF CHRISTIAN IRELAND 213 

of Munster, and builder of the celebrated Cormac's Chapel 
at Cashel. 

The school of Ross was founded by St. Fachtna for the 
Ithian tribes 1 of Corca Laidhi [Cor-ka-lee] in South-west 
Munster. Ross is frequently referred to in the Annals up to 
the tenth century. There is extant an interesting geo- 
graphical poem in Irish, of 136 lines, written by one of the 
teachers there in the tenth century, and apparently intended 
as a kind of simple text to be learned by heart by the students. 2 
Ross was plundered by the Danes in 840, but appears to have 
been flourishing until North-west Munster was laid waste by 
the Anglo-Normans under FitzStephen, after which no more is 
heard of its schools or colleges. 

Innisfallen was founded upon an exquisite site on the lower 
lake of Killarney by St. Finan.3 The well-known " Annals 
of Innisfallen," preserved in the Bodleian Library, were 
probably written by Maelsuthain [Calvus Perennis] O'Carroll, 
the " soul-friend " of Brian Boru, who inserted the famous 
entry in the Book of Armagh.4 It is probable that Brian 
himself was also educated there. This monastery, owing to 
its secure retreat in the Kerry mountains, appears to have 
remained unplundered by the Norsemen, and to have been 
accounted "a paradise and a secure sanctuary." 

Iniscaltra is a beautiful island in the south-west angle of 
Loch Derg, between Galway and Clare, still famous for its 
splendid round tower. It was here Columba of Terryglass, 
who died in 552, established a school and monastery which 
became so famous that in the life of St. Senan seven ships are 
mentioned as arriving at the mouth of the Shannon crowded with 
students for Iniscaltra. It was this Columba who, when asked 
by one of his disciples why the birds that frequented the island 
were not afraid of him, made the somewhat dramatic answer, 

1 See p. 67. 2 See " Proceedings of R. I. Academy for 1884." 

3 Whose 'name is preserved in O'Connell's residence, "Derrynane," 
which is really " Derry-finan " (Doire-Fhionain). 4 See p. 140 and 141 note 



2 1 4 LITER. I R I ' //AS' TWv' I ' C )F IRELAND 

£< Why should they fear me ? am I not a bird myself, for my 
soul always flies to heaven as they fly through the sky." 
Columba had a celebrated successor called Caimin, who died in 
653. Ussher, who calls him St. Caminus, tells us that part of 
his Psalter was extant in his own time, and that he had himself 
seen it "having a collation of the Hebrew text placed on the 
upper part of each page, and with brief scholia added on the 
exterior margin." J 

A great number of lesser monastic institutions and schools 
seem to have existed alongside of these more famous ones, and 
it is hardly too much to say that during the sixth, seventh, 
eighth, and perhaps ninth centuries Ireland had caught and 
held aloft the torch of learning in the lampadia of mankind, 
and procured for herself the honourable title of the island of 
saints and scholars. 

1 " Habebatur psalterium, cujus unicum tantum quaternionem mihi 
videre contigit, obelis et asteriscis diligentissime distinctum ; collatione 
cum veritate Hebraica in superiore parte cujusque paginal posita, et 
brevibus scholiis ad exteriorem marginem adjectis." (See "Works," vol. 
vi. p. 544. Quoted by Professor G. Stokes, " Proceedings R. I. Academy," 
May, 1892.) 



CHAPTER XVII 



THEIR FAME AND TEACHING 



It is very difficult to say what was exactly the curriculum of 
the early Irish colleges, and how far they were patronised by 
laymen. Without doubt their original design was to pro- 
pagate a more perfect knowledge of the Scriptures and of 
theological learning in general, but it is equally certain that 
they must have, almost from the very first, taught the heathen 
classics and the Irish language side by side with the Scriptures 
and theology. There is no other possible way of accounting 
for the admirable scholarship of the men whom they turned 
out, and for their skill in Latin and often also in Irish poetry. 
Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and most of the Latin poets must have 
been widely taught and read. " It is sufficient," says M. 
d'Arbois de Jubainville, talking of Columbanus who was born 
in 543, anc ^ w h° was educated at Bangor, on Belfast Loch, 
" to glance at his writings, immediately to recognise his 
marvellous superiority over Gregory of Tours and the Gallo- 
Romans of his time. He lived in close converse with the 
classical authors, as later on did the learned men of the sixteenth 
century, whose equal he certainly is not, but of whom he 
seems a sort of precursor." From the sixth to the sixteenth 
century is a long leap, and no higher eulogium could be passed 



215 



j 1 6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

upon the scholarship of Col um ban us and the training given by 
his Irish college. 1 All the studies of the time appear to have 
been taught in them through the medium of the Irish lano;uao;e. 
not merely theology but arithmetic, rhetoric, poetry, hagio- 
graphy, natural science as then understood, grammar, chron- 
ology, astronomy, Greek, and even Hebrew. 

" The classic tradition," sums up M. Darmesteter, " to all appear- 
ances dead in Europe, burst out into full flower in the Isle of Saints, 
and the Renaissance began in Ireland 700 years before it was known 
in Italy. During three centuries Ireland was the asylum of the 
higher learning which took sanctuary there from the uncultured 
states of Europe. At one time Armagh, the religious capital of 
Christian Ireland, was the metropolis of civilisation." 

1 Here are a few lines from the well-known Adonic poem which he, at 
the age of 68, addressed to his friend Fedolius — 

" Extitit ingens Impia quippc 

Causa malorum Pygmalionis 

Aurea pellis-, Regis ob aurum 

Corruit auri. Gesta leguntur. 
Munerc parvo 
Ccena Deorum. 

Ac tribus Mis Fosmina scepe 

Maxima lis est Perdit ob aurum 

Orta Deabus. Casta pudorcm. 

Hinc populavit Non Jovis auri 

Trogugenarum Fluxit in imbre 

Ditia regrta Scd quod adultet 

Dorica pubes. Obtulit aurum 

Juraque Icgum Aureus Me 

Fasque fides que Fingitur imber." 
Rumpitur aure. 

Dr. Sigerson in " Bards of the Gael and Gaul," p. 407, prints as Jubain- 
ville also does, the whole of this noted poem, and points out that it is shot 
through and through with Irish assonance. " Not less important than its 
assonance," writes Dr. Sigerson, " is the fact that it introduces into Latin 
verse the use of returning words, or burthens with variations, which 
supply the vital germs of the rondeau and the ballad." I am not myself 
convinced of what Dr. Sigerson considers marks of intentional assonance 
in almost every line. 

His chief remaining works are a Monastic Rule in ten chapters ; a book 
on the daily penances of the monks ; seventeen sermons ; a book on the 
measure of penances ; a treatise on the eight principal vices ; five 
epistles written to Gregory the Great and others ; and a good many Latin 
verses. His life is written by the Abbot Jonas, a contemporary of 
his own. 



THEIR FAME AND TEACHING 217 

" Ireland," says Babington in his " Fallacies of Race Theories," 1 
" had been admitted into Christendom and to some measure of 
culture only in the fifth century. At that time Gaul and Italy 
enjoyed to the full all the knowledge of the age. In the next 
century the old culture-lands had to turn for some little light and 
teaching to that remote and lately barbarous land." 

When we remember that the darkness of the Middle Ages 
had already set in over the struggles, agony, and confusion of 
feudal Europe, and that all knowledge of Greek may be said 
to have died out upon the Continent — " had elsewhere absolutely 
vanished," says M. Darmesteter — when we remember that 
even such a man as Gregory the Great was completely ignorant 
of it, it will appear extraordinary to find it taught in Ireland 
alone, out of all the countries of Western Europe. 2 Yet this 
is capable of complete and manifold proof. Columbanus for 
instance, shows in his letter to Pope Boniface that he knows 
something of both Greek and Hebrew. 3 Aileran, who died of 
the plague in 664, gives evidence of the same in his book on 
our Lord's genealogy. Cummian's letter to the Abbot of 
Iona has been referred to before, and, as Professor G. Stokes puts 
it, " proves the fact to demonstration that in the first half of 
the seventh century there was a wide range of Greek learning, 
not ecclesiastical merely, but chronological, astronomical, and 
philosophical, away at Durrow in the very centre of the Bog 
of Allen." Augustine, an un-identified Irish monk of the 
second half of the seventh century, gives many proofs of Greek 
and Oriental learning and quotes the Chronicles of Eusebius. 
The later Sedulius, the versatile abbot of Kildare, about the 
year 820 " makes parade of his Greek knowledge," to quote a 
French writer in the " Revue Celtique," " employs Greek words 

1 P. 122. 

2 "Grossere oder geringere Kenntniss klassischen Alterthums, vorallcm 
Kenntniss des Griechischen ist daher in jener Zeit eia Mazstab sowohl fur 
die Bilclung einer einzelne© Personlichkeit als auch fur den Culturgrud eines 
ganzen Zeitalters " (Zimmer, " Preussische Jahrbucher," January, 1887). 

3 He plays on his* own name Columba, "a dove," and turns it into Greek 
1 and Hebrew, -Kzpiaripa. and j"\y\> 



218 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

without necessity, and translates into Greek a part of the 
definition of the pronoun." 1 St. Caimins's Psalter, seen by 
Bishop Ussher with the Hebrew text collated, convinced Dr. 
Reeves that Hebrew as well as Greek was studied in Ireland 
about the year 600. Nor did this Greek learning tend to die 
out. In the middle of the ninth century John Scotus 
Erigena, summoned from Ireland to France by Charles the 
Bald, was the only person to be found able to translate the 
Greek works of the pseudo-Dionysius, 2 thanks to the training 
he had received in his Irish school. The Book of Armagh 
contains the Lord's Prayer written in Greek letters, and there 
is a Greek MS. of the Psalter, written in Sedulius' own hand, 
now preserved in Paris. Many more Greek texts, at least a 
dozen, written by Irish monks, are preserved elsewhere in 
Europe. " These eighth and ninth century Greek MSS.," 
remarks Professor Stokes, " covered with Irish glosses and Irish 
poems and Irish notes, have engaged the attention of palaeo- 
graphers and students of the Greek texts of the New Testament 
during the last two centuries." They are indeed a proof 
that — as Dr. Reeves puts it — the Irish School " was unques- 
tionably the most advanced of its day in sacred literature." 

This remarkable knowledge of Greek was evidently derived 
from an early and direct commerce with Gaul, where Greek 
had been spoken for four or five centuries, first alongside of 
Celtic, and in later times of Latin also.3 The knowledge 

1 Dr. Sigerson prints an admirably graceful poem either by this or 
another Sedulius of the ninth century at p. 411 of his "Bards of the Gael 
and Gaul." It shows how far from being pedants the Irish monks were. 
This poem is a dispute between the rose and lily. 

2 This translation which Charles sent to the Pope threw Anastasius, the 
Librarian of the Roman Church, into the deepest astonishment. " Mir- 
andum est," he writes in his letter of reply, dated 865, " quomodo vir ille 
barbarus in finibus mundi positus, talia intellectu capere in aliamque 
linguam transferre valuerit" {See Prof. Stokes, " R. I. Academy Pro- 
ceedings," May, 1892). 

3 St. Jerome tells us that the people of Marseilles were in his day trilin- 
gual, " Massiliam Phooei condiderunt quos ait Varro trilingues esse, quod 
et Graece loquantur, et Latine et Gallice " (Migne's edition, vol. vii. p. 425). 



THEIR FAME AND TEACHING 219 

of Hebrew may have been derived from the Egyptian monks 
who passed over from Gaul into Ireland. Egypt and the East 
were more or less in close communication with Gaul in the 
fifth century, and the Irish Litany, ascribed to Angus the 
Culdee, commemorates seven Egyptian monks amongst many 
other Gauls, Germans, and Italians who resided in Ireland. 
The close and constant intercommunication between Greek- 
speaking Gaul and Ireland accounts for the planting and culti- 
vation of the Greek language in the Irish schools, and once 
planted there it continued to flourish more or less for some 
centuries. There is ample evidence to prove the connection 
between Gaul and Ireland from the fifth to the ninth century. 
We find Gaulish merchants in the middle of Ireland at 
Clonmacnois, who had no doubt sailed up the Shannon in the 
way of commerce, selling wine to Ciaran in the sixth century. 
We find Columbanus, a little later on, inquiring at Nantes for 
a vessel engaged in the Irish trade — qua vexerat corrnnercium cum 
Hiberma. In Adamnan's Life of Columcille we find 
mention of Gaulish sailors arriving at Cantire. Adamnan's 
own treatise on Holy Places was written from the verbal 
account of a Gaul. In the Old Irish poem on the Fair 
of Carman in Wexford — a pagan institution which lived on 
in Christian times — we find mention of the 

" Great market of the foreign Greeks, 
Where gold and noble clothes were wont to be ; " z 

the foreign Greeks being no doubt the Greek-speaking 
Gaulish merchants. Alcuin sends his gifts of money and oil 
and his letters direct from Charlemagne's court to his friends 
in Clonmacnois, probably by a vessel engaged in the direct 
Irish trade, for, as he himself tells us, the sea-route between 
England and France was then closed. If more proof of the 

1 See appendix to O'Curry's " Manners and Customs," vol. iii. p. 547 — 

" Margaid mor na n-gall ngregach 

I mbict or is aid etach." 



220 LITERARY HISTORY OP IRELAND 

close communication between Ireland and Gaul were wanted, 
the fact that Dagobert II., king of France in the seventh 
century, was educated at Slane, 1 in Ireland, and also that 
certain Merovingian and French coins have been found 
here, should be sufficient. 

The fame of these early Irish schools attracted students in 
the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries from all quarters to 
Ireland, which had now become a veritable hind of schools 
and scholars. The Venerable Bede tells us of the crowds 
of Anglo-Saxons who flocked over into Ireland during the 
plague, about the year 664, and says that they were all warmly 
welcomed by the Irish, who took care that they should be 
provided with food every day, without payment on their part ; 
that they should have books to read, and that they should 
receive gratuitous instruction from Irish masters. 2 Books 
must have already multiplied considerably when the swarms 
of Anglo-Saxons could thus be supplied with them gratis. 
This noble tradition of free education to strangers lasted down 
to the establishment of the so-called " National " schools in 
Ireland, for down to that time " poor scholars " were freely 1 
supported by the people and helped in their studies. The num- 
ber of scribes whose deaths have been considered worth 
recording by the annalists is very great, and books consequently | 
must have been very numerous. This plentifulness of books 
probably added to the renown of the Irish schools. An English | 
prince as well as a French one was educated by them in the 
seventh century ; this was Aldfrid, king of Northumbria, who 

1 He is said to have spent eighteen or twenty years there and to have 
acquired all the wisdom of the Scots. The reason why he was sent to 
Slane, as Dr. Healy well observes, was, not because it was the most cele- 
brated school of the time, but because it was in Meath where the High- 
kings mostly dwelt, and it was only natural to bring the boy to some place 
near the Royal Court. (" Ireland's Schools and Scholars," p. 590.) 

2 " Quos omnes Scotti libentissime suscipientes victum eis quotidianum 
sine pretio, libros quoque ad legendum, et migisterium gratuitum, prae- 
bere curabant " (" Ecc. Hist.," book iii. chap. 27). Amongst these were the 
celebrated Egbert, of whom Bede tells us so much, and St. Chad. 



THEIR FAME AND TEACHING 221 

was trained in all the learning of Erin, and who always aided 
and abetted the Irish in England, in opposition to Wilfrid, who 
opposed them. That the king got a good education in Ireland 
may be conjectured from the fact that Aldhelm, abbot of 
Malmesbury, dedicated to him a poetic epistle on Latin 
metric and prosody, in which, says Dr. Healy, " he con- 
gratulates the king on his good fortune in having been edu- 
cated in Ireland." Aldhelm's own master was also an Irishman, 
Mael-dubh, and his abbacy of Malmesbury is only a corruption 
of this Irishman's name Maeldubh's-bury. 1 In another place 
Aldhelm tells us that while the great English school at Canter- 
bury was by no means overcrowded, the English swarmed to 
the Irish schools like bees. Aldfrid himself, when leaving 
Ireland, composed a poem of sixty lines in the Irish language 
and metre, which he must have learned from the bards, in 
which he compliments each of the provinces severally, as 
though he meant to thank the whole nation for their hos- 
pitality. 2 

" I found in Inisfail the fair 
In Ireland, while in exile there, 
Women of worth, both grave and gay men, 
Learned clerics, heroic laymen. 

1 He is called Mailduf by Bede, and Malmesbury Maildufi urbem, which 
shows that the aspirated "b" in dubh had twelve hundred years ago the 
sound of " f " as it has to-day in Connacht. 

2 O'Reilly states that the poem consisted of ninety-six lines, but Hardi- 
mau, in his " Irish Minstrelsy," vol. ii. p. 372, gives only sixty. Hardiman 
has written on the margin of O'Reilly's " Irish Writers " in my possession, 
'" I have a copy, the character is ancient and very obscure." Aldfrid may 
well have written such a poem, of which the copy printed by Hardiman 
may be a somewhat modernised version. It begins — 

" Ro dheat an inis finn Fail 
In Eirinn re imarbhaidh, 
lomad ban, ni baoth an breas, 
Iomad laoch, iomad cleireach." 

It was admirably and fairly literally translated by Manganfor Montgomery. 
His fourth line, however, runs, "Many clerics and many laymen," which 
conveys no meaning save that of populousness. I have altered this line 
to make it suit the Irish " many a hero, many a cleric." 



223 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

*' I travelled its fruitful provinces round, 
And in every one of the live I found, 
Alike in church and in palace hall, 
Abundant apparel and food for all." 

St. Willibrordj a Saxon noble educated in Ireland about 
the same time with King Aldfrid, went out thence and 
ultimately became Archbishop of Utrecht. Another noted 
scholar of the same period was A gilbert, a Frank by birth, 
who spent a long time in Ireland for the purpose of study and 
afterwards became Bishop of Paris. 1 We have seen how the 
Office of St. Cathaldus states that the school of Lismore was 
visited by Gauls, Angles, Scotti, Teutons, and scholars from 
other neighbouring nations. The same was more or less the 
case with Clonmacnois, Bangor, and some others of the most 
noted of the Irish schools. 

It was not in Greek attainments, nor in ecclesiastical studies, 
nor in Latin verses alone, that the Irish excelled ; they also 
produced astronomers like Dungal and geographers like 
Dicuil. DungaPs attainments we have glanced at, but 
Dicuil's book — de mensura orbis terrarum — -written about the 
year 825, is more interesting, although nothing is known about 
the author's own life, nor do we know even the particular 
Irish school to which he belonged. 2 His book was published 
by a Frenchman because he found Dicuil's descriptions of the 
measurements of the Pyramids a thousand years ago tallied 
with his own. 

" Antioch,'.' writes Professor G. Stokes, " about a.d. 600, was the 
centre of Greek culture and Greek erudition, and the chronicle of 
Malalas, as embodied in Niebuhr's series of Byzantine historians, 
is a mine of information on many questions ; but compare it with 
the Irish work of Dicuil and its mistakes are laughable." 



1 " Natione quidem Gallus," says Bede, " sed tunc legendarum gratia 
scripturarum in Hibernia non parvo tempore demoratus." 

2 Probably Clonmacnois. See Stokes, " Celtie Church," p. 214, and Dr. 
Healy's " Ireland's Schools and Scholars," p. 283. 



THEIR FAME AND TEACHING 223 

A great deal of his work is founded of course upon Pliny, 
Solinus, and Priscian, but he shows a highly-developed critical 
sense in comparing and collating various MSS. which he had 
inspected to ensure accuracy. What he tells us at first-hand, 
however, is by far the most interesting. In speaking of the 
Nile he says that : — 

"Although we never read in any book that any branch of the Nile 
flows into the Red Sea, yet Brother Fidelis told in my presence to 
my master Suibhne [Sweeny] — to whom under God I owe whatever 
knowledge I possess — that certain clerics and laymen from Ireland 
who went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage sailed up the Nile a long way." 

They sailed thence by a canal into the Red Sea, and this state- 
ment proves the accuracy of Dicuil, for this canal really existed 
and continued in use until 767, when it was closed to hinder 
the people of Mecca and Medina getting supplies from Egypt. 
The account of the Pyramids is particularly interesting. 
"The aforesaid Brother Fidelis measured one of them and 
found that the square face was 400 feet in length." The 
same brother wished to examine the exact point where Moses 
had entered the Red Sea in order to try if he could find any 
traces of the chariots of Pharaoh or the wheel tracks, but the 
sailors were in a hurry and would not allow him to go on this 
excursion. The breadth of the sea appeared to him at this 
point to be about six miles. Dicuil describes Iceland long 
before it was discovered by the Danes. 

"It is now thirty years," said he, writing in 825, "since I was told 
by some Irish ecclesiastics, who had dwelt in that island from the 
1st of February to the 1st of August, that the sun scarcely sets 
there in summer, but always leaves, even at midnight, light enough 
to do one's ordinary business — vel pediciilos de camisia abstrahere" / 

Those writers are greatly mistaken, he says, who describe the 
Icelandic sea as always frozen, and who say that there is day 
there from spring to autumn and from autumn to spring, for 
the Irish monks sailed thither through the open sea in a month 



224 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

of great natural cold, and yet found alternate day and night, 
except about the period of the summer solstice. He also 
describes the Faroe Isles : — 

"A certain trustworthy monk told me that he reached one of them 
by sailing for two summer days and one night in a vessel with two 
benches of rowers. ... In these islands for almost a hundred 
years there dwelt hermits who sailed there from our own Ireland 
[nostra Scottia], but now they are once more deserted as they were 
at the beginning, on account of the ravages of the Norman pirates." 

This is proof positive that the Irish discovered and inhabited 
Iceland and the Faroe Islands half a century or a century 
before the Northmen. Dicuil was distinguished as a gram- 
marian, metrician, and astronomer, 1 but his geographical treatise, 
written in his old age, is the most interesting and valuable of 
his achievements. 

Fergil, or Virgilius, as he is usually called, was another great 
Irish geometer, who eventually became Archbishop of Salzburg 
and died in 785. He taught the sphericity of the earth and 
the doctrine of the Antipodes, a truth which seems also to have 
been familiar to Dicuil. St. Boniface, afterwards Archbishop 
of Mentz, evidently distorting his doctrine, accused him to the 
Pope of heresy in teaching that there was another world and 
other men under the earth, and another sun and moon. 
" Concerning this charge of false doctrine, if it shall be 
established," said the Pope, " that Virgil taught this per- 
verse and wicked doctrine against God and his own soul, 
do you then convoke a council, degrade him from the priest- 
hood, and drive him from the Church." Virgil, however, 
seems to have satisfactorily explained his position, for nothing 
was done against him. 

These instances help to throw some light upon a most 
difficult subject — the training given in the early Irish Christian 
schools, and the cause of their undoubted popularity for three 
centuries and more amongst the scholars of Western Europe. 

1 His astronomical work, written in 814-16, remains as yet unpublished. 



CHAPTER XVIII 

CONFLICTS WITH THE CIVIL POWER 

The extraordinary and abnormal receptivity of the Irish of 
the fifth century, and the still more wonderful and unprece- 
dented activity of their descendants in the sixth and following 
ones had almost bid fair to turn the nation into a land of 
apostles. This outburst of religious zeal, glorious and en- 
during as it was, carried with it, like all sudden and powerful 
movements, an element of danger. It was unfortunately 
destined in its headlong course to overflow its legitimate 
barriers and to come into rude contact with the civil power 
which had been established upon lines more ancient and not 
wholly sympathetic. 

A striking passage in one of Renan's books dwells upon the 
obvious religious inferiority of the Greeks and Romans to the 
Jews, while it notes at the same time their immense political 
and intellectual superiority over the Semitic nation. The 
inferiority of the Jew in matters political and intellectual the 
French writer seems inclined to attribute to his abnormally 
developed religious sense, which, absorbed in itself, took all too 
little heed of the civic side of life and of the necessities of the 
state. Nor can it, I think, be denied that primitive Chris- 
tianity in some cases took over from the Hebrews a certain 

P 225 



226 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

amount of this spirit of self-absorption and of disregard for the 
civil side of life and social polity. "Ouand on prend les choses 
humaines par ce cote," remarks Renan, "on fonde de grands 
proselytisme^ universels, on a des apotres courant le monde 
d'un bout a l'autre, et le convertissant ; mais on ne fonde pas 
des institutions politiques, une independance nationale, une 
dynastic, un code, un peuple." 

We have already seen how the exaggerated pretensions of 
St. Columcille had come almost at once into opposition with 
the established law of the land, the law which enjoined death 
as the penalty for homicide at Tara, and how the priest 
unjustifiably took upon himself to override the civil magistrate 
in the person of the king*. 

Of precisely such a nature — only with far worse and far 
more enduring consequences — was the cursing of Tara by St. 
Ruadhan of Lothra. The great palace where, according to 
general belief, a hundred and thirty-six pagan and six Christian 
kings had ruled uninterruptedly, the most august spot in all 
Ireland, where a " truce of God " had always reigned during 
the great triennial assemblies, was now to be given up and 
deserted at the curse of a tonsured monk. The great 
Assembly or Feis of Tara, which accustomed the people to 
the idea of a centre of government and a ruling power, 
could no more be convened, and a thousand associations and 
memories which hallowed the office of the High-king were 
snapped in a moment. It was a blow from which the 
monarchy of Ireland never recovered, a blow which, by 
putting an end to the great triennial or septennial conven- 
tions of the whole Irish race, weakened the prestige of the 
central ruler, increased the power of the provincial chieftains, 
segregated the clans of Ireland from one another, and opened 
a new road for faction and dissension throughout the entire 
island. 

There is a considerable amount of mystery attached to this 
whole transaction, and all the great Irish annalists, the " Four 



CONFLICTS WITH THE CIVIL POWER 227 

Masters," the " Chronicon Scotorum," the Annals of Ulster, 
Tighearnach, and Keating, are absolutely silent upon the 
matter. 1 The "Four Masters," indeed, under the year 554 
record " the last Feis of Tara," 2 as does Tighearnach also ; 
but why it was the last, or why Tara was deserted, they do 
not say. Yet so great a national event was infinitely too 
important to have been passed over in silence except for some 
special reason, and I cannot help thinking that it was not 
alluded to because the annalists did not care to recall it. The 
authorities for the cursing of Tara are the lost " Annals of 
Clonmacnois," which were translated into English by Connell 
Mac Geoghegan in 1627, and which give a very long and 
full account of the matter ; 3 an Irish MS. in Trinity College, 
Dublin ; 4 the Life of St. Ruadhan himself, in the fourteenth 
century (?) codex the Book of Kilkenny, now in Marsh's 
Library ; and his life as published by the Bollandists ; the 
ancient scholiast on Fiach's hymn on the Life of St. 
Patrick ; a fifteenth century vellum in the British Museum, 
which professes to copy from the lost Book of Sligo ; the 
Book of Rights,5 and the Book of Lismore, which last, 
though it turns the story into an ursgeul, or romance, yet 
agrees closely in essentials with the lost " Annals of Clon- 
macnois." The story, as told in this manuscript, is worth 
producing as a specimen of how the Irish loved to turn every 
great historical event into an ursgeul, seasoned with a good 
spice of the marvellous, and dressed up dramatically. How 
much of such pseudo-histories is true, how much invented for 
the occasion, and how much may be stock-in-trade of the 

1 The silence of Keating seems to me particularly strange, for he devotes 
a good deal of space to King Diarmuid's reign, yet he must have been 
perfectly well aware of the stories then current and the many allusions in 
vellum MSS. to the cursing of Tara. 

2 " Feis dedheanach Teamhra do deanamh la Diarmailt righ Kiv.iun." 
Tighearnach calls it " Cena postrema." 

3 Printed for the Royal Society of Antiquaries by the late Denis Murphy, 
S.J., Dublin, 1896. See p. 85. « H., I. 15. 5 Pp. 53-57- 



228 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

story-teller, is never easily determined. The story runs as 

follows : — 

King Diarmuid's steward and spear-bearer had been ill and 
wasting away for a year. On his recovery he goes to the 
King, and asks him whether "the order of his discipline and 
peace " had been observed during the time of his illness. The 
King answered that he had noticed no breach or diminution 
of it. The spear-bearer said he would make sure of the 
King's peace by travelling round Ireland with his spear held 
transversely, and he would see whether the door of every liss 
and fortress would be opened wide enough to let the spear 
pass — such on the approach of the King's spear seems to have 
been the law — and " so shall the regimen and peace of 
Ireland," said he " be ascertained." 

" From Tara, therefore, goes forth the spear-bearer, 1 and with 
him the King of Ireland's herald, to proclaim Ireland's peace, and 
lie arrived in the province of Connacht, and made his way to the 
mansion of Aedh [^E] Guaire of Kinelfechin. And he at that time 
had round his rath a stockade of red oak, and had a new house too, 
that was but just built [no doubt inside the rath] with a view to his 
marriage feast. Now, a week before the spear-bearer's arrival the 
other had heard that he was on his way to him, and had given orders 
to make an opening before him in the palisade [but not in the 
dwelling] . 

" The spear-bearer came accordingly, and Aedh Guaire bade him 
welcome. The spear-bearer said that the house must be hewn 
[open to the right width] before him. 

" ' Give thine own orders as to how it may please thee to have it 
hewn,' said Aedh Guaire, but, even as he spake it, he gave a stroke 
of his sword to the spear-bearer, so that he took his head from off 
him. 

" Now at this time the discipline of Ireland was such that who- 
soever killed a man void of offence, neither cattle nor other valu- 
able consideration might be taken in lieu of the slain, but the slayer 
must be killed, unless it were that the King should order or permit 
the acceptance of a cattle-price. 



1 He is called Aedh Baclamh here, " Bacc Lonim " in the " Life." Bac- 
lamh apparently indicates some office. I have here called him only the 
spear-oearer. 



CONFLICTS WITH THE CIVIL POWER 229 

" When King Diarmuid heard of the killing he sent his young men 
and his executive to waste and to spoil Aedh Guaire. And he flees to 
Bishop Senan, for one mother they had both, and Senan the bishop 
goes with him to Ruadhan of Lothra, for it was two sisters of 
Lothra that nursed Bishop Senan, Cael and Ruadhnait were their 
names. But Aedh Guaire found no protection with Ruadhan, but 
was banished away into Britain for a year, and Diarmuid's people 
came to seek for him in Britain, so he was again sent back to 
Ruadhan. And Diarmuid himself comes to Ruadhan to look for 
him, but he had been put into a hole in the ground by Ruadhan, 
which is to-day called ' Ruadhan's Hole.' Diarmuid sent his man 
to look in Ruadhan's kitchen whether Aedh Guiare were there. But 
on the man's going into the kitchen his eyes were at once struck 
blind. When Diarmuid saw this, he went into the kitchen himself, 
but he did not find Aedh Guiare there. And he asked Ruadhan 
where he was, for he was sure he would tell him no lie. 

" ' I know not where he is,' said Ruadhan, ' if he be not under 
yon thatch.' 

"After that Diarmuid departs to his house, but he remembered 
the cleric's word and returns to the recluse's cell, and he sees the 
candle being brought to the spot where Aedh Guaire was. And he 
sends a confidential servant to bring him forth — Donnan Donn was 
his name — and he dug down in the hiding place, but the arm he 
stretched out to take Aedh withered to the shoulder. And he 
makes obeisance to Ruadhan after that, and the two servants 
remained w y ith Ruadhan after that in Poll Ruadhain. After this 
Diarmuid [himself] carries off Aedh Guaire to Tara." 

Upon this, we are told, Ruadhan made his way to Brendan 
of Birr, and thence to the so-called twelve apostles of Ireland, 1 
and they all followed the King and came to Tara, and they 
fast upon the King that night, and he, " relying on his kingly 
quality and on the justice of his cause, fasts upon them." 2 

" In such fashion, and to the end of a year they continued before 
Tara under Ruadhan's tent exposed to weather and to wet, and the}' 
were every other night without food, Diarmuid and the clergy, fast- 
ing on each other." 

After this the story goes on that Brendan the Navigator had 
in the meantime landed from his foreign expeditions, and 

1 See above, p. [96. 

? "A niurt a fhlatha*ocus a fhirinne," 



230 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

hearing that the other saints of Ireland were fasting: before 
Tara, he also proceeds thither. But King Diarmuid, learning 
of his coming, was terrified, and consented to give up Aedh 
Guaire for "fifty horses, blue-eyed with golden bridles." 
Brendan the Voyager, fresh from his triumphs on the ocean, 
summons fifty seals and makes them look like horses, and 
guaranteeing them for a year and a quarter, hands them over 
to the King and receives Aedh Guaire. But when the time 
guaranteed was out, they became seals again, and brought their 
riders with them into the sea. And Diarmuid was very wroth 
at the deception, " and shut the seven lisses of Tara to the end 
that the clergy should not enter into Tara, lest they should 
leave behind malevolence and evil bequests." 

It appears that the clerics still continued fasting upon the 
King, and he fasting upon them, 

" And people were assigned [by the King] to wait upon them and 
to keep watch and ward over them until the clergy should have accom- 
plished the act of eating and consuming food in their presence. But 
on this night Brendan gave them this advice — their cowls to be about 
their heads and they to let their meat and ale pass by their mouths 
into their bosoms and down to the ground, and this they did. Word 
was brought to the King that the clergy were consuming meat and 
ale, so Diarmuid ate meat that night, but the clerics on the other 
hand fasted on him through stratagem. 

" Now Diarmuid's wife — Mughain was his wife — saw a dream, which 
dream was this, that upon the green of Tara was a vast and wide- 
foliaged tree, and eleven slaves hewing at it, but every chip which 
they knocked from it would return into its place again and adhere to 
it [as before], till at last there came one man that dealt the tree but a 
stroke, and with that single cut laid it low, as the poet spoke the lay — 

" ' An evil dream did she behold 

The wife of the King of Tara of the heavy torques, 

Although it brought to her grief and woe 

She could not keep from telling it. 

A powerful stout tree did she behold, 

That might shelter the birds of Ireland, 

Upon the hill-side, smitten with axes, 

And champions hewing together at it, etc. 

(48 lines more.) 



CONFLICTS WITH THE CIVIL POWER 231 

As for Diarmuid, son of Cerbhall [the King] , after that dream he 
arose early, so that he heard the clergy chant their psalms, and he 
entered into the house in which they were. 

" ' Alas ! ' he said, ' for the iniquitous contest which ye have waged 
against me, seeing that it is Ireland's good that I pursue, and to pre- 
serve her discipline and royal right, but 'tis Ireland's unpeace and 
murderousness which ye endeavour after. For God Himself it is 
who on such or such a one confers the orders of prince, of righteous 
ruler, and of equitable judgment, to the end that he may maintain 
his truthfulness, his princely quality, and his governance. Now that 
to which a king is bound is to have mercy coupled with stringency 
of law, and peace maintained in the sub-districts, and hostages in 
fetters ; to succour the wretched, but to overwhelm enemies, and to 
banish falsehood, for unless on this hither side one do the King of 
Heaven's will, no excuse is accepted by him on the other. And thou, 
Ruadhan,' said Diarmuid, 'through thee it is that injury and rending 
of my mercy and of mine integrity to Godward is come about, and 
I pray God that thy diocese be the first in Ireland that shall be 
renounced, and thy Church lands the first that shall be impugned.' 

" But Ruadhan said, ' Rather may thy dynasty come to nought, and 
none that is son or grandson to thee establish himself in Tara for 
ever ! ' 

" Diarmuid said, ' Be thy Church desolate continually.' 

" Ruadhan said, ' Desolate be Tara for ever and for ever. 

" Diarmuid said, ' May a limb of thy limbs be wanting to thee, and 
come not with thee under ground, and mayest thou lack an eye !' 

"' Have thou before death an evil countenance in sight of all ; may 
thine enemies prevail over thee mightily, and the thigh that thou 
liftedst not before me to stand up, be the same mangled into pieces.' 

" Said Diarmuid, ' The thing [i.e., the man] about which is our 
dispute, take him with you, but in thy church, Ruadhan, may the 
alarm cry sound at nones always, and even though all Ireland be 
at peace be thy church's precinct a scene of war continuously.' 

" And from that time to this the same is fulfilled." 1 

There follows a poem of 88 lines uttered by the King. 
The same story in all its essential details is told in the MS. 

1 There is a poem ascribed to Ruadhan in (he MS. marked H. 4. in 
Trinity College. O'Clery's Feilire na Naomh has a curious note on 
Ruadhan which runs thus : Ruadhan of Lothra, "he was of the race of 
Owen Mor, son of Oilioll Olum. A very old ancient book (sein leabhar fo 
aosta) as we have mentioned at Brigit, istof February, states that Ruadhan 
of Lothra was in manners and life like Matthew the Apostle." 



232 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Egerton 1782, a vellum of the fifteenth century, which pro- 
fesses to follow the lost Book of Sligo. It is quite as unbiassed 
and outspoken about the result of the clerics' action as the 
Book of Lismore. It makes Diarmuid address the clerics thus — 

" ' Evil is that which ye have worked O clerics, my kingdom's ruina- 
tion. For in the latter times Ireland shall not be better off than she 
is at this present. But, however it fall out,' said he, ' may bad 
chiefs, their heirs-apparent, and their men of war, quarter them- 
selves in your churches, and may it be their [read your ?] own selves 
that in your houses shall pull off such peoples' brogues for them, ye 
being the while powerless to rid yourselves of them.' " 

This codex sympathises so strongly with the king that it 
states that one of Ruadhan's eyes burst in his head when the king 
cursed him. Beg mac De, the celebrated Christian prophet, is 
made to prophecy thus, when the king asks him in what fashion 
his kingdom should be after his death, 

"•' An evil world,' said the prophet, 'is now at hand, in which men 
shall be in bondage, woman free ; mast wanting ; woods smooth ; 
blossom bad ; winds many ; wet summer ; green corn ; much cattle ; 
scant milk ; dependants burdensome in every country, hogs lean, 
chiefs wicked ; bad faith ; chronic killing ; a world withered, raths in 
number! " 

King Diarmuid died in 558, according to the "Four 
Masters ; " it is certain he never retreated a foot from Tara, 
but it was probably his next successor who, intimidated at the 
clerics' curse and the ringing of their bells — for they circled 
Tara ringing their bells against it — deserted the royal hill 
for ever. 1 

The palace of Cletty, not far from Tara, was also cursed by 
St. Cairneach at the request of the queen of the celebrated 
Muircheartach Mor mac Earca, and deserted in consequence. 2 

1 After this the High-kings of Ireland belonging to the northern Ui Neill 
resided in their own ancient palace of Aileach near Derry, and the High- 
kings of the southern Ui Neill families resided at the Rath near Castle- 
pollard, or at Dun-na-sgiath (" the Fortress of the Shields ") on the brink of 
Loch Ennell, near Mullingar. Brian Boru resided at Kincora in Clare, 

2 See O'Donovan's letter from Navan on Brugh na Boinne, 



CONFLICTS WITH THE CIVIL POWER 233 

Another, but probably more justifiable, instance of the clergy 
fasting upon a lay ruler and cursing him, was that of the 
notorious Raghallach (Reilly), king of Connacht, who made 
his queen jealous by his infidelity, and committed other crimes. 
The story is thus recorded by Keating — 

" The scandal of that evil deed soon spread throughout all the land 
and the saints of Ireland were sorrowful by reason thereof. St. 
Fechin of Fobar [Fore is West Meath] came in person to Raghallach 
to reprehend him, and many saints came in his company to aid him 
in inducing the prince to discontinue his criminal amour. But 
Raghallach despised their exhortations. Thereupon they fasted 
against him, and as there were many other evil-minded persons 
besides him in the land, they made an especial prayer to God that for 
the sake of an example he should not live out the month of May, 
then next to come on, and that he should fall by the hands of villains, 
by vile instruments, and in a filthy place ; and all these things hap- 
pened to him," 

as Keating goes on to relate, for he was killed by turf-cutters. 

Sometimes the saints are found on opposite sides, as at 
the Battle of Cooldrevna where Columcille prayed against 
the High-king's arms, and Finian prayed for them ; or as in 
the well-known case of the expulsion of poor old St. 
Mochuda x and his monks in 631 from the monastery at 
Rathain, where his piety and success had aroused the jealousy 
of the clerics of the Ui Neill, who ejected him by force, despite 
his malediction. It was then he returned to his own province 
and founded Lismore, which soon became famous. 2 

Led away by our admiration of the magnificent outburst or 
learning and the innumerable examples of undoubted devotion 
displayed by Irishmen from the sixth to the ninth century, we 
are very liable to overlook the actual state of society, and to 
read into a still primitive social constitution the thoughts and 
ideas of later ages, forgetting the real spirit of those early times. 
We must remember that St. Patrick had made no change in 
the social constitution of the people, and that the new religion 

1 Also called Carthach. • 2 See above, p. 21 \. 



234 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

in no way affected their external institutions, and as a natural 
consequence even saints and clerics took the side of their own 
kings and people, and fought in battle with as much gusto as 
any of the clansmen. Women fought side by side with men. 
and were only exempted from military service in 590, through 
the influence of Columcille at the synod of Druimceat — of 
which synod more hereafter, and Adamnan had to get the law 
renewed over a hundred years later, for it had become in- 
operative. The monks were of course as liable as any other of 
the tribesmen to perform military duty to their lords, and were 
only exempted * from it in the year 804. The clergy fought 
with Cormac mac Culenain as late as 908 at the battle where 
he fell, and a great number of them were killed. 2 The 
clergy often quarrelled among themselves also. In 673 the 
monks of Clonmacnois and Durrow fought one another, and 
the men of Clonmacnois slew two hundred of their opponents. 
In 816 four hundred men were slain in a fight between rival 
monasteries. The clan system, in fact, applied down to the 
eighth or ninth century almost as much to the clergy as to the 
laity, and with the abandonment of Tara and the weakening 
of the High-kingship, the only power which bid fair to over- 
ride feud and faction was got rid of, and every man drank for 
himself the intoxicating draught of irresponsibility, and each 
princeling became a Caesar in his own community. 

The saints with their long-accredited exercises of semi- 
miraculous powers, formed an admirable ingredient wherewith 
to spice a historic romance, such as the soul of the Irish story- 
tellers loved, and they were not slow to avail themselves of it. 
A passage in the celebrated history of the Boru tribute, 
preserved in the twelfth-century Book of Leinster, turns both 
Columcille and his biographer Adamnan to account in this 
way, by introducing dialogues between them and their con- 

1 By Fothadh called " na Canoine " who persuaded Aedh Oirnide to 
release them from this duty. 

2 Sec " Fragments of Irish Annals " by O'Donovan, p. 210, and his note 



CONFLICTS WITH THE CIVIL POWER 235 

temporary kings of Ireland, which are worth giving here, as 
they preserve some primitive traits, but more especially as an 
example of how the later mediaevalists conceived their own 
early saints. Aedh [Ae], the High-king of Ireland, had asked 
Columcille how many kings of all whom he himself had come 
in contact with, or had cognisance of, would win, or had won, 
to heaven ; and Columcille answered : 

" ' Certainly I know of only three, Daimin King of Oriel, and Ailill 
King of Connacht, and Feradach of Corkalee, King of Ossory. 

" ' And what good did they do,' said Aedh, ' beyond all other 
kings ? ' 

" ' That's easy told,' said Columcille, ' as for Daimin no cleric ever 
departed from him having met with a refusal, and he never reviled 
a cleric, nor spoiled church nor sanctuary, and greatly did he bestow 
upon the Lord. Afterwards he went to heaven, on account of his mild 
dealing with the Lord's people ; and the clerics still chant his litany. 
" ' As for Ailill, moreover, this is how he found the Lord's clemency ; 
he fought the battle of Cul Conaire with the Clan Fiacrach, and they 
defeated him in that battle, and he said to his charioteer, " Look 
behind for us, and see whether the slaying is great, and are the 
slayers near us ? " 

" ' The charioteer looked behind him, and 'twas what he said : 
" ' " The slaying with which your people are slain," said he, " is 
unendurable." 

" ' " It is not their own guilt that falls on them, but the guilt of my 
pride and my untruthfulness," said he ; "and turn the chariot for us 
against [the enemy]," said he, "for if I be slain amidst them (?) it 
will be the saving of a multitude.' 

" ' Thereupon the chariot was turned round against the enemy, and 
thereafter did Ailill earnestly repent, and fell by his enemies. So 
.hat man got the Lord's clemency,' said Columcille. 

"'As for Feradach, 1 the King of Ossory, moreover, he was a 
;ovetous man without a conscience, and if he were to hear that a 
nan in his territory had only one scruple of gold or silver, he would 
ake it to himself by force, and put it in the covers of goblets 
ind crannogues and swords and chessmen. Thereafter there came 
ipon him an unendurable sickness. They eollect round him all 
lis treasures, so that he had them in his bed. His enemies came, 
he Clan Connla, after that, to seize the house on him. His sons, 



1 This story is also told in the " Three Fragments of Irish Annals," p. 9. 



236 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

too, came to him to cany away the jewels with them [to save them 
for him]. 

Do not take them away, my sons," said lie, " for I harried many 

tor those treasures, and I desire to harry myself on this side the 
tomb for them, and that my enemies may bring them away of my 
good will, so that the Deity may not harry me on the other side." 

"'After that his sons departed from him, and he himself made 
earnest repentance, and died at the hands of his enemies, and gains 
the clemency of the Lord.' 

" ' Now as for me myself,' said Aedh, ' shall I gain the Lord's 
clemency ? ' 

" ' Thou shalt not gain it on any account,' said Columcille. 

"'Well, then, cleric,' said he, 'procure for me from the Deity that 
the Leinster men [at least] may not overthrow me.' 

" ' Well, now, that is difficult for me,' said Columcille, ' for my 
mother was one of them, and the Leinstermen came to me to 
Durrow, 1 and made as though they would fast upon me, till I should 
grant them a sister's son's request, and what they asked of me was 
that no outside king should ever overthrow them ; and I promised 
them that too, but here is my cowl for thee, and thou shalt not be 
slain while it is about thee.' " 

Less clement is Adamnan depicted in his interview, over a 
century later, with King Finnachta, who had just been per- 
suaded by St. Moiling 2 to remit the Boru tribute (then leviable 
off Leinster), until luan, by which the King unwarily under- 
stood Monday, but the more acute saint Doomsday, the word 
having both significations. Adamnan saw through the decep- 
tion in a moment, and hastened to interrupt the plans of his 
brother saint. 

"He sought therefore," says the Book of Leinster, "the place 
where [king] Finnachta was, and sent a clerk of his familia to summon 
him to a conference. Finnachta, at the instant, busied himself with 
a game of chess, and the cleric said, ' Come, speak with Adamnan.' 
" ' I will not,' he answered, ' until this game be ended.' 
"The ecclesiastic returned to Adamnan and retailed him this 
answer. Then the saint said, ' Go and tell him that in the interval , 

1 See above, p. 170. 

2 For Moiling, see above, p. 209-10. The following translation is b\ 
Standish Hayes O'Grady, " Silva Gadclica," p. 422. 



CONFLICTS WITH THE CIVIL POWER 23; 

I shall chant fifty psalms, in which fifty is a single psalm that will 
deprive his children and grandchildren, and even any namesake of 
his, for ever of the kingdom.' z 

" Again the clerk accosted Finnachta and told him this, but until 
his game was played the King never noticed him at all. 

" ' Come, speak with Adamnan,' repeated the clerk, ' and ' 

" ' I will not,' answered Finnachta, ' till this [fresh] game, too, 
shall be finished,' all which the cleric rendered to Adamnan, who 
said : 

" ' A second time begone to him, tell him that I will sing other 
fifty psalms, in which fifty is one that will confer on him shortness 
of life.' 

" This, too, the clerk, when he was come back, proclaimed to 
Finnachta, but till the game was done, he never even perceived the 
messenger, who for the third time reiterated his speech. 

" ' Till this new game be played out I will not go,' said the King, 
and the cleric carried it to Adamnan. 

" ' Go to him/ the holy man said, ' tell him that in the meantime I 
will sing fifty psalms, and among them is one that will deprive him 
of attaining the Lord's peace.' 

"This the clerk imparted to Finnachta, who, when he heard it, 
with speed and energy put from him the chess-board, and hastened 
to where Adamnan was. 

" ' Finnachta,' quoth the saint, ' what is thy reason for coming 
now, whereas at the first summons thou earnest not ? ' 

" ' Soon said,' replied Finnachta. ' As for that which first thou 
didst threaten against me ; that of my children, or even of my 
namesakes, not an individual ever should rule Ireland — I took it 
easily. The other matter which thou heldest out to me — shortness 
of life — that I esteemed but lightly, for Moiling had promised me 
heaven. But the third thing which thou threatenedst me — to deprive 
me of the Lord's peace — that I endured not to hear without coming 
in obedience to thy voice.' 

" Now the motive for which God wrought this was : that the gift 
which Moiling had promised to the King for remission of the tribute 
He suffered not Adamnan to dock him of." 

It would be easy to multiply such scenes from the writings 
of the ancient Irish. That they are not altogether eleventh 
or twelfth-century inventions, but either the embodiment of a 

1 For a description of the awful consequences of a saint's curse that 
make a timid lunatic out of a valliant warrior see O'Donovan's frag- 
mentary "Annals," p. 233. 



238 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

vivid tradition, or else, in some cases, the working-up of earlier 
documents, now lost, is, I think, certain, but we possess no 
criterion whereby we may winnow out the grains of truth 
from the chaff of myth, invention, or perhaps in some cases 
(where tribal honour is at stake) deliberate falsehood. The 
only thing we can say with perfect certainty is that this is the 
way in which the contemporaries of St. Lawrence O'Toole 
pictured for themselves the contemporaries of St. Columcille 
and St. Adamnan. 



CHAPTER XIX 



THE BARDIC SCHOOLS 



We must now, leaving verifiable history behind us, attempt a 
cautious step backwards from the known into the doubtful, 
and see what in the way of literature is said to have been 
produced by the pagans. We know that side by side with 
the colleges of the clergy there flourished, perhaps in a more 
informal way, the purely Irish schools of the Brehons and the 
Bards. Unhappily however, while, thanks to the great 
number of the Lives of the Saints, 1 we know much about 
the Christian colleges, there is very little to be discovered about 
the bardic institutions. These were almost certainly a con- 
tinuation of the schools of the druids, and represented some- 
thing far more antique than even the very earliest schools of 
the Christians, but unlike them they were not centred in a 
fixed locality nor in a cluster of houses, but seem to have been 
peripatetic. The bardic scholars grouped themselves not 
round a locality but round a personality, and wherever it 
pleased their master to wander — and that was pretty much all 

1 O'Clery notices, in his Feilire na Naomh, the lives of thirty-one saints 
written in Irish, all extant in his time, not to speak of Latin ones. I fancy 
m<»t of them still survive. Stokes printed nine from the Book of Lismore ; 
Standish Hayes O'Grady four more from various sources. 

239 



240 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

round Ireland — there they followed, and the people seem to 
have willingly supported them. 

There seems to be some confusion as to the forms into 
which what must have been originally the druidic school 
disintegrated itself in the fifth and succeeding centuries, but 
from it we can see emerging the poet, the Brehon, and the 
historian, not all at once, but gradually. In the earliest period 
the functions of all three were often, if not always, united in 
one single person, and all poets were ipso facto judges as well. 
We have a distinct account of the great occasion upon which 
the poet lost his privilege of acting as a judge merely because 
he was a poet. It appears that from the very earliest date the 
learned classes, especially the " files," had evolved a dialect of 
their own, which was perfectly dark and obscure to every one 
except themselves. This was the Bearla Feni, in which so 
much of the Brehon law and many poems are written, and 
which continued to be used, to some extent, by poets down to 
the very beginning of the eighteenth century. Owing to 
their predilection for this dialect, the first blow, according to 
Irish accounts, was struck at their judicial supremacy by the 
hands of laymen, during the reign of Conor mac Nessa, some 
time before the birth of Christ. This was the occasion when 
the sages Fercertne and Neide contended for the office of ♦ 
arch-ollav of Erin, with its beautiful robe of feathers, the 
Tugen. 1 Their discourse, still extant in at least three MSS. 
under the title of the " Dialogue of the Two Sages," 2 was so 
learned, and they contended with one another in terms so 
abstruse that, as the chronicler in the Book of Ballymote 
puts it : — 

" Obscure to every one seemed the speech which the poets uttered 
in that discussion, and the legal decision which they delivered was 
not clear to the kings and to the other poets. 

"'These men alone,' said, the kings, 'have their judgment and 



1 See Cormac's glossary sub voce. 
2 See " Irische Texte," Dritte Serie, I Heft, pp. 187 and 204. 



THE BARDIC SCHOOLS 241 

their skill, and their knowledge. In the first place we do not 
understand what they say.' 

" ' Well, then,' said Conor, ' every one shall have his share therein 
from to-day for ever.' " * 

This was the occasion upon which Conor made the law that 
the office of poet should no longer carry with it, of necessity, 
the office of judge, for, says the ancient writer, "poets alone 
had judicature from the time that Amairgin Whiteknee 
delivered the first judgment in Erin " until then. 

That the Bardic schools, which we know flourished as public 
institutions with scarcely a break from the Synod of Drumceat 
in 590 (where regular lands were set apart for their endow- 
ment) down to the seventeenth century, were really a 
continuation of the Druidic schools, and embodied much that 
was purely pagan in their curricula, is, I think, amply shown 
by the curious fragments of metrical text-books preserved in 
the Books of Leinster and Ballymote, in a MS. in Trinity 
College, and in a MS. in the Bodleian, all four of which have 
been recently admirably edited by Thurneysen as a continuous 
text. 2 He has not however ventured upon a translation, for 
the scholar would be indeed a bold one who in the present state 
of Celtic scholarship would attempt a complete interpretation 
of tracts so antique and difficult. That they date, partially at 
least, from pre-Christian times seems to me certain from their 
prescribing amongst other things for the poet's course in one 
of his years of study a knowledge of the magical incantations 
called Tenmlaida y Imbas forosnaiy> and Dichetal do chennaib na 
tuaithe, and making him in another year learn a certain poem 
or incantation called Cetnad^ of which the text says that — 

" It is used for finding out a theft. One sings it, that is to say, 
through the right rist on the track of the stolen beast" [observe the 
antique assumption that the only kind of wealth to be stolen is cattle] 

1 Agallamh an da Suadh. 

2 " Irische Texte," Dritte serie, Heft i. 

3 See above, p. 84; 

8 



242 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

" or on the track of the thief, in case the beast is dead. And one sings 
it three times on the one [track] or the other. If, however, one 
does not find the track, one sings it through the right list, and goes 
to sleep upon it, and in one's sleep the man who has brought it 
away is clearly shown and made known. Another virtue [of this 
lay] : one speaks it into the right palm and rubs with it the quarters 
of the horse before one mounts it, and the horse will not be over- 
thrown, and the man will not be thrown off or wounded." 

Another Cetnad to be learned by the poet, in which he 
desires length of life, is addressed to " the seven daughters of 
the sea, who shape the thread of the long-lived children." 

Another with which he had to make himself familiar was the 
Glam dlchlnnj- intended to satirise and punish the prince who 
refused to a poet the reward of his poem. The poet — 

" was to fast upon the lands of the king for whom the poem was to 
be made, and the consent of thirty laymen, thirty bishops " — a 
Christian touch to make the passage pass muster — " and thirty poets 
should be had to compose the satire ; and it was a crime to them to 
prevent it when the reward of the poem was withheld" — a pagan touch 
as a make-weight on the other side ! " The poet then, in a company 
of seven, that is, six others and himself, upon whom six poetic 
degrees had been conferred, namely afocloc, macfuirmedh, doss, cana, 
cli, anradh, and ollamh, went at the rising of the sun to a hill which 
should be situated on the boundary of seven lands, and each of them 
was to turn his face to a different land, and the ollamh' s (ollav's) face 
was to be turned to the land of the king, who was to be satirised, 
and their backs should be turned to a hawthorn which should be 
growing upon the top of a hill, and the wind should be blowing from 
the north, and each man was to hold a perforated stone and a thorn 
of the hawthorn in his hand, and each man was to sing a verse of 
this composition for the king — the ollamh or chief poet to take the 
lead with his own verse, and the others in concert after him with 
theirs; and each then should place his stone and his thorn under 
the stem of the hawthorn, and if it was they that were in the 
wrong in the case, the ground of the hill would swallow them, and 
if it was the king that was in the wrong, the ground would swallow 
him and his wife, and his son and his steed, and his robes and his 
hound. The satire of the macfuirmedh fell on the hound, the satire 



1 See O'Curry's " Manners and Customs," vol. ii. p. 217, and " Irische 
Texte," Dritte serie, Heft. i. pp. 96 and 125. 



THE BARDIC SCHOOLS 243 

of the focloc on the robes, the satire of the doss on the arms, the 
satire of the cana on the wife, the satire of the cli on the son, the 
satire of the anrad on the steed, 1 the satire of the ollamh on the 
king." 

These instances that I have mentioned occurring in the 
books of the poets' instruction, are evidently remains of magic 
incantations and terrifying magic ceremonies, taken over from 
the schools and times of the druids, and carried on into the 
Christian era, for nobody, I imagine, could contend that they 
had their origin after Ireland had been Christianised. 2 And 
the occurrence in the poets' text-books of such evidently pagan 
passages, side by side with allusions to Athairne the poet — a 
contemporary of Conor mac Nessa, a little before the birth of 
Christ, Caoilte, the Fenian poet of the third century, Cormac 
his contemporary, Laidcend mac Balrchida about the year 
400, and others — seems to me to be fresh proof for the real 
objective existence of these characters. For if part of the 
poets' text-books can be thus shown to have preserved things 
taught in the pre-Christian times — to be in fact actually pre- 
Christian — why should we doubt the reality of the pre-Christian 
persons mixed up with them ? 

The first poem written in Ireland by a Milesian is said to 
be the curious rhapsody of Amergin, the brother of Eber, Ir, 
and Erimon, who on landing broke out in a strain of 
exultation : — 

" I am the wind which breathes upon the sea, 
I am the wave of the ocean, 
I am the murmur of the billows, 
I am the ox of the seven combats, 
I am the vulture upon the rock, 
I am a beam of the sun, 



1 It is curious to thus make the steed rank apparently next to the king 
himself, and above the wife and son, for the anrad who curses the steed 
ranks next to the ollamh. 

'-' Thurneysen expresses some doubt about the antiquity of the lasl 

citation. 



244 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

I am the fairest of plants, 

I am a wild boar in valour, 

1 am a salmon in the water, 

I am a lake in the plain, 

I am a word of science, 

I am the point of the lance of battle, 

I am the god who creates in the head [i.e., of man] the fire [i.e., 

the thought] 
Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain ? 
Who announces the ages of the moon [if not I] ? 
Who teaches the place where couches the sea [if not I] ? " ■ 

There are two more poems attributed to Amergin ot much 
the same nature, very ancient and very strange. Irish 
tradition has always represented these poems as the first made 
by our ancestors in Ireland, and no doubt they do actually 
represent the oldest surviving lines in the vernacular of any 
country in Europe except Greece alone. 

The other pre-Christian poets 2 of whom we hear most, and 
to whom certain surviving fragments are ascribed, are Feir- 
ceirtne, surnamed Jile, or the poet, who is usually credited with 
the authorship of the well-known grammatical treatise called 
Uraicept na n-Eigeas or " Primer of the Learned. "3 It was he 

1 See Text I. paragraph 123 of Thurneysen's "Mittelirische Verslehren" 
for three versions of this curious poem, printed side by side from the 
Books of Leinster and Ballymote, and a MS. in the Bodleian. The old 
Irish tract for the instruction of poets gives it as an example of what it 
calls Cetal do chendaib. I have followed D'Arbois de Jubainville's inter- 
pretation of it. He sees in it a pantheistic spirit, but Dr. Sigerson has 
proved, I think quite conclusively, that it is liable to a different interpre- 
tation, a panegyric upon the bard's own prowess, couched in enigmatic 
metaphor. (See " Bards of the Gael and Gaul," p. 379.) 

2 A number of names are mentioned — chiefly in connection with law 
fragments — of kings and poets who lived centuries before the birth of 
Christ, including an elegy by Lughaidh, son of Ith (from whom the Ithians 
sprang), on his wife's death, Cimbaeth the founder of Emania, before 
whose reign Tighearnach the Annalist considered omnia monumental, 
Scotorum to be incerta, Roigne, the son of Hugony the Great, who lived 
p. early three hundred years before Christ, and some others. 

3 The " Uraicept " or " Uraiceacht " is sometimes ascribed to Forchern. 



THE BARDIC SCHOOLS 245 

who contended with Neide for the arch-poet's robe, causing King 
Conor to decide that no poet should in future be also of necessity 
a judge. The Uraicept begins with this preface or introduction: 
" The Book of Feirceirtne here. Its place Emania ; its time 
the time of Conor mac Nessa ; its person Feirceirtne the poet ; 
its cause to bring ignorant people to knowledge." There is 
also a poem attributed to him on the death of Curoi mac 
Daire, the great southern chieftain, whom Cuchulain slew, 
and the Book of Invasions contains a valuable poem ascribed to 
him, recounting how Ollamh Fodla, a monarch who is said to 
have flourished many centuries before, established a college of 
professors at Tara. 

There was a poet called Adhna, the father of that Neide 
with whom Feirceirtne contended for the poet's robe, 
who also lived at the court of Conor mac Nessa, and his 
name is mentioned in connection with some fragments of 
laws. 

Athairne, the overbearing insolent satirist from the Hill 
of Howth, who figures largely in Irish romance, was 
contemporaneous with these, though I do not know that 
any poem is attributed to him. But he and a poet 
called Forchern, with Feirceirtne and Neide, are said to 
have compiled a code of laws, now embodied with others 
under the title of TSreithe Neimhidh in the Brehon i aw 
Books. 

There was a poet Lughar at the Court of Oilioll and Mcve 
in Connacht about the same time, and a poem on the descen- 
dants of Fergus mac Roigh [Roy] is ascribed to him, but as 
lie was contemporaneous with that warrior he could not have 
written about his descendants. 



It gives examples of the declensions of nouns and adjectives in Irish, 
distinguishing feminine nouns from masculine, etc. It gives rules of 
syntax, and exemplifies the declensions by quotations from ancient poets. 
A critical edition of it from the surviving manuscripts that cent, mi it in 
whole or part is a desideratum. 



246 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

There is a prose tract called Moran's Will, 1 ascribed to 
Moran, a well-known jurist who lived at the close of the first 
century. 

Several other authors, either of short poems or law frag- 
ments, are mentioned in the second and third centuries, such 
as Feradach king of Ireland, Modan, Ciothruadh the poet, 
Fingin, Oilioll Olum himself, the great king of Munster, to 
whom are traced so many of the southern families. Fithil, a 
judge, and perhaps some others, none of whom need be 
particularised. 

At the end of the third century we come upon three or 
four names of vast repute in Irish history, into whose mouths 
a quantity of pieces are put, most of which are evidently of 
later date. These are the great Cormac mac Art himself, 
the most striking king that ever reigned in pagan Ireland, he 
who built those palaces on Tara Hill whose ruins still remain ; 
Finn mac Cumhail his son-in-law and captain ; Ossian, Finn's 
son ; Fergus, Ossian 's brother ; and Caoilte [Cweeltya] mac 
Ronain. 

The poetry ascribed to Finn mac Cumhail, Ossian, and the 
other Fenian singers we will not examine in this place, but 
we must not pass by one of the most remarkable prose tracts 
ot ancient Ireland with which I am acquainted, the famous 
treatise ascribed to King Cormac, and well known in Irish 
literature as the "Teagasg nogh," or Instruction of a Prince, 
which is written in a curious style, by way of question and 
answer. Cairbre, Cormac's son, he who afterwards fell out 
with and overthrew the Fenians, is supposed to be learning 
kingly wisdom at his father's feet, and that experienced monarch 
instructs him in the pagan morality of the time, and gives 
him all kinds of information and advice. The piece, which is 
heavily glossed in the Book of Ballymote, on account of the 
antiquity of the language, is of some length, and is far too 
interesting to pass by without quoting from it. 
1 Udacht Morain. H. 2, 7, T. C, D. 



THE BARDIC SCHOOLS 247 

THE INSTRUCTION OF A PRINCE, 

" i O grandson of Con, O Cormac/ said Cairbre, ' what is good for 
a king.' 1 

" ' That is plain/ said Cormac, ( it is good for him to have patience 
and not to dispute, self-government without anger, affability without 
haughtiness, diligent attention to history, strict observance of cove- 
nants and agreements, strictness mitigated by mercy in the execution 
of laws. ... It is good for him [to make] fertile land, to invite ships 
to import jewels of price across sea, to purchase and bestow raiment, 
[to keep] vigorous swordsmen for protecting his territories, [to make] 
war outside his own territories, to attend the sick, to discipline his 
soldiers ... let him enforce fear, let him perfect peace, [let him] 
give much of metheglin and wine, let him pronounce just judgments 
of light, let him speak all truth, for it is through the truth of a king 
that God gives favourable seasons.' 

" 'O grandson of Con, O Cormac,' said Cairbre, 'what is good for 
the welfare of a country ? ' 

" ' That is plain,' said Cormac, ' frequent convocations of sapient 
and good men to investigate its affairs, to abolish each evil and 
retain each wholesome institution, to attend to the precepts of the 
elders ; let every assembly be convened according to law, let the 
law be in the hands of the nobles, let the chieftains be upright and 
unwilling to oppress the poor/ " etc., etc. 

A more interesting passage is the following : — 

" ' O grandson of Con, O Cormac, what are the duties of a prince 
at a banqueting-house ? ' 

" ' A Prince on Samhan's [now All Souls] Day, should light his 
lamps, and welcome his guests with clapping of hands, procure 
comfortable scats, the cupbearers should be respectable and active 
iu the distribution of meat and drink. Let there be moderation of 
music, short stories, a welcoming countenance, a welcome for the 
learned, pleasant conversations, and the like, these are the duties of 
the prince, and the arrangement of the banqueting-house.' " 

After this Cairbre puts an important question which was 
asked often enough during the period of the Brehon law, and 

1 In the original in the Book of Ballymote : "A ua Cuinn a Cormaic, 
ol coirbie cia is deach [i.e., maith], do Ri. Nin ol cormac [i.e., Xi doiligh 
liom sin]. As deach [i.e., maith], do eimli aiiunne [/.<•., t'<>i^hde] gan deabha 
[i.e., imreasoin] uallcadi fosdadh [i.e., foasdadh] gan fearg. Soagallamha 
gan mordhacht," etc. The glosses in brackets are written above the words. 



248 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

which for over a thousand years scarce ever received a different 
answer. He asks, " For what qualifications is a king elected 
over countries and tribes of people ? " 

Cormac in his answer embodies the views of every clan in 
Ireland in their practical choice of a leader. 

" From the goodness of his shape and family, from his ex- 
perience and wisdom, from his prudence and magnanimity, from 
his eloquence and bravery in battle, and from the number of his 
friends," 

After this follows a long description of the qualifications of a 
prince, and Cairbre having heard it puts this question : — u O 
grandson of Con, what was thy deportment when a youth ; " 
to which he receives the following striking answer : 

" ' I was cheerful at the Banquet of the Midh-chuarta [Mee-cuarta, 
" house of the circulation of mead ''], fierce in battle, but vigilant and 
circumspect. I was kind to friends, a physician to the sick, merciful 
towards the weak, stern towards the headstrong. Although possessed 
of knowledge, I was inclined towards taciturnity. 1 Although strong 
I was not haughty. I mocked not the old although I was young. I 
was not vain although I was valiant. When I spoke of a person in 
his absence I praised, not defamed him, for it is by these customs 
that we are known to be courteous and civilised (liaghalach).' " 

There is an extremely beautiful answer given later on by 
Cormac to the rather simple question of his son : 

" ' O grandson of Con, what is good for me ? ' 

" ' If thou attend to my command/ answers Cormac, ' thou wilt not 



1 Compare Henry I V.'s advice to his son, not to make himself too familiar 
but rather to stand aloof from his companions. 

" Had I so lavish of my presence been, 
So common-hackneyed in the eyes of men, 
So stale and cheap to vulgar company — 
Opinion, that did help me to the crown, 
Had still kept loyal to possession," etc. 

As for Richard his predecessor — 

" The skipping king, he ambled up and down 
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits, 
Soon kindled, and soon burned ; carded his state ; 
Mingled his royalty with capering fools, ' etc. 

" Henry IV.," Part I„ act iii., scene 2. 



THE BARDIC SCHOOLS 249 

mock the old although thou art young, nor the poor although thou 
art well-clad, nor the lame although thou art agile, nor the blind 
although thou art clear-sighted, nor the feeble although thou art 
strong, nor the ignorant although thou art learned. Be not slothful, 
nor passionate, nor penurious, nor idle, nor jealous, for he who is so 
is an object of hatred to God as well as to man.' " 

" ' O grandson of Con,' asks Cairbre, in another place, ' I would 
fain know how I am to conduct myself among the wise and among 
the foolish, among friends and among strangers, among the old and 
among the young,' and to this question his father gives this notable 
response. 

" ' Be not too knowing nor too simple ; be not proud, be not inactive, 
be not too humble nor yet haughty ; be not talkative but be not too 
silent ; be not timid neither be severe. For if thou shouldest appear 
too knowing thou wouldst be satirised and abused ; if too simple 
thou wouldst be imposed upon ; if too proud thou wouldst be 
shunned ; if too humble thy dignity would suffer ; if talkative thou 
wouldst not be deemed learned ; if too severe thy character would 
be defamed ; if too timid thy rights would be encroached upon.' " 

To the curious question, " O grandson of Con, what are the 
most lasting things in the world ? " the equally curious and to 
me unintelligible answer is returned, "Grass, copper, and yew." 

Of women, King Cormac, like so many monarchs from 
Solomon down, has nothing good to say, perhaps his high 
position did not help him to judge them impartially. At least, 
to the question, " O grandson of Con, how shall I distinguish 
the characters of women ? " the following bitter answer is 
given : 

" ' I know them, but I cannot describe them. Their counsel is 
foolish, they are forgetful of love, most headstrong in their desires, 
fond of folly, prone to enter rashly into engagements, given to 
swearing, proud to be asked in marriage, tenacious of enmity, cheer- 
less at the banquet, rejectors of reconciliation, prone to strife, of 
much garrulity. Until evil be good, until hell be heaven, until the sun 
hide his light, until the stars of heaven fall, women will remain as we 
have stated. Woe to him, my son, who desires or serves a bad 
woman, woe to every one who has got a bad wife ' " ! 

This Christian allusion to heaven and hell, and some others 
of the same sort, show that despite a considerable pagan flavour- 



250 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

ing the tract cannot be entirely the work of King Cormac, 
though it may very well be the embodiment and extension of an 
ancient pagan discourse, for, as we have seen, after Christianity 
had succeeded in getting the upper handover paganism, a kind 
of tacit compromise was arrived at, by means of which the 
bards and files and other representatives of the old pagan 
learning, were allowed to continue to propagate their stories, 
tales, poems, and genealogies, at the price of incorporating with 
them a small share of Christian alloy, or, to use a different 
simile, just as the vessels of some feudatory nations are compelled 
to fly at the mast-head the flag of the suzerain power. But so 
badly has the dovetailing of the Christian and the pagan parts 
been managed in most of the older romances, that the pieces 
come away quite separate in the hands of even the least skilled 
analyser, and the pagan substratum stands forth entirely dis- 
tinct from the Christian accretion. 



CHAPTER XX 



THE SUGGESTIVELY PAGAN ELEMENT IN IRISH LITERATURE 

It is this easy analysis of early Irish literature into its ante- 
Christian and its post-Christian elements, which lends to it its 
absorbing value and interest. For when all spurious accretions 
have been stripped off, we find in the most ancient Irish poems 
and sagas, a genuine picture of pagan life in Europe, such as 
we look for in vain elsewhere. 

" The Church," writes Windisch, " adopted towards pagan sagas, 
the same position that it adopted towards pagan law. ... I see 
no sufficient ground for doubting that really genuine pictures of 
a pre-Christian culture are preserved to us in the individual sagas, 
pictures which are of course in some places faded, and in others 
painted over by a later hand." * 

Again in his notes on the story of Deirdre, he remarks — 

"The saga originated in pagan, and was propagated in Christian 
times, and that too without its seeking fresh nutriment as a rule from 
Christian elements. But we must ascribe it to the influence of 
Christianity that what is specifically pagan in Irish saga is blurred 

1 " Ich sehe daher keinen geniigenden Grand daran zu zweifeln dass 
uns in den Einzelsagen wirklich echte Bilder einer vorchristlichen Cult in- 
erhalten sind, allerdings Bilder die an einigen Stellen verblassl, an andern 
von spaterer Hand ubermalt sind " (" Irische Texte," I., p. 253). 

251 



252 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

over and forced into the background. And yet there exist many 
whose contents are plainly mythological. The Christian monks were 
certainly not tin- first who reduced the ancient sagas to fixed form, 
but later on they copied them faithfully, and propagated them after 
Ireland had been converted to Christianity." 

Zimmer too has come to the same conclusion. 

" Nothing," he writes, " except a spurious criticism which takes 
for original and primitive the most palpable nonsense of which 
Middle-Irish writers from the twelfth to the sixteenth century are 
guilty with regard to their own antiquity, which is in many respects 
strange and foreign to them : nothing but such a criticism can, on 
the other hand, make the attempt to doubt of the historical character 
of the chief persons of the Saga cycles. 1 For we believe that Meve, 
Conor mac Nessa, Cuchulain, and Finn mac Ciimhail, are exactly as 
much historical personalities as Arminius, or Dietrich of Bern, or 
Etzel, and their date is just as well determined as that of the above- 
mentioned heroes and kings, who are glorified in song by the 
Germans, even though, in the case of Irish heroes and kings, external j 
witnesses are wanting.'" 

M. d'Arbois de Jubainville expresses himself in like terms. 
" We have no reason," he writes, " to doubt of the reality of 
the principal role in this [cycle of Cuchulain] ; " 2 and of the 
story of the Boru tribute which was imposed on Leinster about 
a century later ; he writes, " Le recit a pour base des faits reels, 
quoique certains details aient ete crees par l'imagination ; " and 
again, "Irish epic story, barbarous though it is, is, like Irish 
law, a monument of a civilisation far superior to that of the 
most ancient Germans ; if the Roman idea ot the state was 
wanting to that civilisation, and, if that defect in it was a 
radical flaw, still there is an intellectual culture to be found 

1 " Nur eine Afterkritik die den handgreiflichsten Unsinn durch den , 
mittelirische Schreiber des 12-16 Jahrh. sich am eigenem Altherthum 
versiindigen das ihnen in mancher Hinsicht fremd ist fur urfangliche 
Weisheit halt, nun eine solche Kritik kann, umgekehrt den Versuch machen 
an dem historischen Character der Hauptperson beider Sagenkreise zu 
zweifeln," etc. ( " Kelt-Studien," Heft. II., p. 189). 

* " Introduction a l'etude de la literature celtique," p. 217, 



PAGAN ELEMENT IN IRISH LITER A TURE 253 

there, far more developed than amongst the primitive 
Germans.' " * 

" Ireland, in fact," writes M. Darmesteter in his " English Studies," 
well summing up the legitimate conclusions from the works of the 
great Celtic scholars, " has the peculiar privilege of a history con- 
tinuous from the earliest centuries of our era until the present day. 
She has preserved in the infinite wealth of her literature a complete 
and faithful picture of the ancient civilisation of the Celts. Irish 
literature is therefore the key which opens the Celtic world." 

But the Celtic world means a large portion of Europe, and 
the key to unlock the door of its past history is in the Irish 
manuscripts of saga and poeiTL Without them the student 
would have to view the past history of Europe through the dis- 
torting glasses of the Greeks and Romans, to whom all outer 
nations were barbarians, into whose social life they had no 
motive for inquiring. He would have no other means of 
estimating what were the feelings, modes of life, manners, and 
habits, of those great races who possessed so large a part of the 
ancient world, Gaul, Belgium, North Italy, parts of Germany, 
Spain, Switzerland, and the British Isles ; who burned Rome, 
plundered Greece, and colonised Asia Minor. But in the 
Irish romances and historical sagas, he sees come to light 
another standard by which to measure. Through this early 
Irish peep-hole he gets a clear look at the life and manners 
of the race in one of its strongholds, from which he may 
conjecture and even assume a good deal with regard to 
the others. 

That the pictures of social life and early society drawn in 
the Irish romances represent phases not common to the 
Irish alone, but to large portions of that Celtic race which 
once owned so much of Europe, may be surmised with some 
certainty from the way in which characteristics of the Celts 
barely mentioned by Greek and Roman writers re-appear 
amongst the Irish in all the intimate detail and fond expansion 

1 Preface to " L'Epopec Celtique en Irkmdc." 



.254 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

of romance. M. cTArbois de Jubainville has drawn attention 
to many such instances. 

Posidonius, who was a friend of Cicero, and wrote about a 
hundred years before Christ, mentions a custom which existed 
in Gaul in his time of fighting at a feast for the best bit which 
was to be given to the most valiant warrior. This custom, I 
briefly noticed by Posidonius, might be passed by unnoticed by 
the ordinary reader, but the Irish one will remember the early 
romances of his race in which the curadh-mir or " heroes bit " 
so largely figures. He will remember that it is upon this 
custom that one of the greatest sagas of the Cuchulain cycle, 
the feast of Bricriu, hinges. Bricriu, the Thersites of the 
Red Branch, having built a new and magnificent house, 
determines to invite King Conor and the other chieftains to 
a feast, for the house was very magnificent. 

" The dining hall was built like that of the High-king at Tara. 
From the hearth to the wall were nine beds, and each of the side 
walls was thirty-five feet high and covered with ornaments of gilt 
bronze. Against one of the side walls of that palace was reared a j 
royal bed destined for Conor, 1 king of Ulster, which looked down | 
upon all the others. It was ornamented with carbuncles and pre- ' 
cious stones and other gems of great price. The gold and silver and 
all sorts of jewellery which covered that bed shone with such splen- 
dour that the night was as brilliant as the day." 

He had prepared a magnificent curadh-mir for the feast, 
consisting of a seven-year old pig, and a seven-year old cow 
that had been fed on milk and corn and the finest food since their 
birth, a hundred cakes of corn cooked with honey — and every 

1 This name is written Concobar in the ancient texts, and Conchubhair in 
the modern language, pronounced Cun-hoo-ar or Cun-hoor, whence the 
Anglicised form Conor. The " b " was in early times pronounced, but there 
are traces of its being dropped as early as the twelfth century, though with 
that orthographical conservatism which so distinguishes the Irish lan- 
guage, it has been preserved down to the present day. Zimmer says he 
found it spelt Conchor in the twelfth-century book the Liber Landavensis. 
From this the form Crochor (" cr " for " en " as is usual in Connacht) Id- 
lowed, and the name is now pronounced either Cun-a-char or Cruch-oor. 



PAGAN ELEMENT IN IRISH LITERA TURE 255 

four cakes took a sack of corn to make them — and a vat 01 
wine large enough to hold three of the warriors of the 
Ultonians. This magnificent " heroes' bit " he secretly pro- 
mises to each of three warriors in turn, Laeghaire [Leary], 
Conall Cearnach, and Cuchulain, hoping to excite a quarrel 
among them. On the result of his expedient the saga 
turns. * 

Again, Caesar tells us that when he invaded the Gauls they 
did not fight any longer in chariots, but it is recorded that they 
did so fight two hundred years before his time, even as the Persians 
fought against the Greeks, and as the Greeks themselves must 
have fought in a still earlier age commemorated by Homer. But 
in the Irish sagas we find this epic mode of warfare in full force. 
Every great man has his charioteer, they fight from their cars 
as in Homeric days, and much is told us of both steed, chariot 
and driver. In the above-mentioned sa°;a of Bricriu's feast it 
is the charioteers of the three warriors who claim the heroes' 
bit for their masters, since they are apparently ashamed to make 
the first move themselves. The charioteer was more than a 
mere servant. Cuchulain sometimes calls his charioteer friend 
or master (popa), and on the occasion of his fight with Ferdiad 
desires him in case he (Cuchulain) should show signs or 
yielding, to " excite reproach and speak evil to me so that the 
ire of my rage and anger should grow the more on me, but if 
he give ground before me thou shalt laud me and praise me and 
speak good words to me that my courage may be the greater," 
and this command his friend and charioteer punctually 
executes. 

The chariot itself is in many places graphically de- 

1 The reminiscence of the hero-bit appears to have lingered on in folk 
memory. A correspondent, Mr. Terence Kelly, from near Omagh, in the 
county Tyrone, tells me that he often heard a story told by an <>M 
shanachie and herb-doctor in that neighbourhood who spoke a half-Scotch 
dialect of English, in which the hero-bit figured, but it had fallen in 
magnificence, and was represented as bannocks and butter will) some 
minor delicacies. 



256 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

scribed. Here is how its approach is pourtrayed in the 
Tain — 

" It was not long," says the chronicler, "until Ferdiad's charioteer 
heard the noise approaching, the clamour and the rattle, and the 
whistling, and the tramp, and the thunder, and the clatter and the 
roar, namely the shield-noise of the light shields, and the hissing of 
the spears, and the loud clangour of the swords, and the tinkling of 
the helmet, and the ringing of the armour, and the friction of the 
arms ; the dangling of the missive weapons, the straining of the 
ropes, and the loud clattering of the wheels, and the creaking of the 
chariot, and the trampling of the horses, and the triumphant advance 
of the champion and the warrior towards the ford approaching him." 

In the romance called the " Intoxication of the Ultonians," 
it is mentioned that they drave so fast in the wake of Cuchu- 
lain, that " the iron wheels of the chariots cut the roots of the 
immense trees." Here is how the romancist describes the 
advance of such a body upon Tara-Luachra. 

" Not long were they there, the two watchers and the two druids, 
until a full fierce rush of the first band broke hither past the glen. 
Such was the fury with which they advanced that there was not left 
a spear on a rack, nor a shield on a spike, nor a sword in an armoury 
in Tara-Luachra that did not fall down. From every house on which 
was thatch in Tara-Luachra it fell in immense flakes. One would 
think that it was the sea that had come over the walls and over the 
corners of the world upon them. The forms of countenances were 
changed, and there was chattering of teeth in Tara-Luachra within. 
The two druids fell in fits and in faintings and in paroxysms, one of 
them out over the wall and the other over the wall inside." 

On another occasion the approach of Cuchulain's chariot is 
thus described — 

" Like a mering were the two dykes which the iron wheels of 
Cuchulain's chariot made on that day of the sides of the road. Like 
flocks of dark birds pouring over a vast plain were the blocks and 
round sods and turves of the earth which the horses would cast away 
behind them against the ... of the wind. Like a flock of swans 
pouring over a vast plain was the foam which they flung before them 
over the muzzles of their bridles. Like the smoke from a roval 



PAGAN ELEMENT IN IRISH LITERA TURE 257 

hostel was the dust and breath of the dense vapour, because of the 
vehemence of the driving which Liag, son of Riangabhra, on that 
day gave to the two steeds of Cuchulain." * 

Elsewhere the chariot itself is described as " wythe-wickered, 
two bright bronze wheels, a white pole of bright silver with a 
veining of white bronze, a very high creaking body, having its 
firm sloping sides ornamented with cred (tin ?), a back-arched 
rich golden yoke, two rich yellow-peaked alh y hardened sword- 
straight axle-spindles." Laeghaire's chariot is described in 
another piece as " a chariot wythe-wickered, two firm black 
wheels, two pliant beautiful reins, hardened sword-straight 
axle-spindles, a new fresh-polished body, a back-arched rich 
silver-mounted yoke, two rich-yellow peaked alls ... a bird 
plume of the usual feathers over the body of the chariot." 2 

Descriptions like these are constantly occurring in the Irish 
tales, and enable us to realise better the heroic period of warfare 
and to fill up in our imagination many a long-regretted lacuna 
in our knowledge of primitive Europe. 

" Those philosophers," says Diodorus Siculus, a Greek writer of 
the Augustan age, speaking of the Druids, "like the lyric poets 
called bards, have a great authority both in affairs of peace and war, 
friends and enemies listen to them. Also when the two armies are 
in presence of one another and swords drawn and spears couched, 
they throw themselves into the midst of the combatants and appease 
them as though they were charming wild beasts. Thus even 
amongst the most savage barbarians anger submits to the rule of 
wisdom, and the god of war pays homage to the Muses." 

To show that the manners and customs of the Keltoi or Celts 
of whom Diodorus speaks were in this respect identical with 
those of their Irish cousins (or brothers), and to give another 
instance of the warm light shed by Irish literature upon the 
early customs of Western Europe I shall convert the abstract 

1 See "Revue Celtique," vol. xiv. p. 417, translated by Whitley Stokes. 
3 Leabhar na h-Uidhre, p. 122, col. 2, translated by Sullivan, 
" Manners and Customs," vol. i. p. cccclxxviii. 

R 



258 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

into the concrete by a page or two from an Irish romance, not 
an old one, 1 but one which no doubt preserves many original 
traditionary traits. In this story Finn mac Ciimhail or Cool 2 
at a great feast in his fort at Allen asks Goll about some tribute 
which he claimed, and is dissatisfied at the answer of Goll, who 
may be called the Ajax of the Fenians. After that there arose 
a quarrel at the feast, the rise of which is thus graphically 
pourtrayed — 

" ' Goll,' said Finn, ' you have acknowledged in that speech that 
you came from the city of Beirbhe to the battle of Cnoca, and that 
you slew my father there, and it is a bold and disobedient thing of 
you to tell me that,' said Finn. 

" ' By my hand, O Finn,' said Goll, ' if you were to dishonour me 
as your father did, I would give you the same payment that I gave 
Cool.' 

" ' Goll,' said Finn, ' I would be well able not to let that word pass 
with you, for I have a hundred valiant warriors in my following for 
every one that is in yours.' 

" ' Your father had that also,' said Goll, ' and yet I avenged my 
dishonour on him, and I would do the same to you if you were to 
deserve it of me.' 

" White-skinned Carroll O Baoisgne 3 spake, and 't is what he said : 
' O Goll,' said he, ' there is many a man,' said he, ' to silence you and 
your people in the household of Finn mac Cumhail.' 

" Bald cursing Conan mac Morna spake, and 't is what he said, ' I 
swear by my arms of valour,' said he, ' that Goll, the day he has least 
men, has a man and a hundred in his household, and not a man of 
them but would silence you.' 

" ' Are you one of those, perverse, bald-headed Conan ? ' said 
Carroll. 

" ' I am one of them, black-visaged, nail-torn, skin-scratched, little- 
strength Carroll,' says Conan, ' and I would soon prove it to you that 
Cumhail was in the wrong-' 



1 In Irish Fionn mac Cumhail, pronounced " Finn (or Fewn in Mini- 
ster), mac Coo-wil " or " Cool." 

2 I translated this from manuscript in my possession made by one 
Patrick O'Pronty (an ancestor, I think, of Charlotte Bronte) in 1763. Mr. 
Standish Hayes O'Grady has since published a somewhat different text of it. 

3 Pronounced " Bvveesg-na," the triphthong aoi is always pronounced 
like ce in Irish. 



PAGAN ELEMENT IN IRISH LITER A TURE 259 

"It was then that Carroll arose, and he struck a daring fist, quick 
and ready, upon Conan, and there was no submission in Conan's 
answer, for he struck the second fist on Carroll in the middle of his 
face and his teeth." 

Upon this the chronicler relates how first one joined in and 
then another, until at last all the adherents of Goll and Finn 
and even the captains themselves are hard at work. "After 
that," he adds, " bad was the place for a mild, smooth-fingered 
woman or a weak or infirm person, or an aged, long-lived 
elder." This terrific fight continued "from the beginning of 
the night till the rising of the sun in the morning," and was 
only stopped — just as Diodorus says battles were stopped — by 
the intervention of the bards. 

" It was then," says the romancist, " that the prophesying poet of 
the pointed words, that guerdon-full good man of song, Fergus 
Finnbheoil, rose up, and all the Fenians' men of science along with 
him, and they sang their hymns and good poems, and their perfect 
lays to those heroes to silence and to soften them. It was then they 
ceased from their slaughtering and maiming, on hearing the music 
of the poets, and they let their weapons fall to earth, and the poets 
took up their weapons and they went between them, and grasped 
them with the grasp of reconciliation." 

When the palace was cleared out it was found that 1,100 of 
Finn's people had been killed between men and women, and 
eleven men and fifty women of Goll's party. 

Caesar speaks of the numbers who frequented the schools of 
the druids in Gaul ; " it is said," he adds, " that they learn 
there a great number of verses, and that is why some of those 
pupils spend twenty years in learning. It is not, according to 
the druids, permissible to entrust verses to writing although 
they use the Greek alphabet in all other affairs public and 
private." Of this prohibition to commit their verses to paper, 
we have no trace, so far as I know, in our literature, but the 
accounts of the early bardic schools entirely bear out the 
description here given of them by Caesar, and again shows the 
solidarity of custom which seems to have existed between the 



260 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

various Celtic tribes. According to our early manuscripts it 
took from nine to twelve years for a student to take the 
highest degree at the bardic schools, and in many cases where 
the pupil failed to master sufficiently the subjects of the year, 
he had probably to spend two over it, so that it is quite possible 
that some might spend twenty years over their learning. And 
much of this learning was, as Caesar notes, in verse. Many 
earlier law tracts appear to have been so, and even many of the 
earliest romances. There is a very interesting account extant 
called the " Proceedings of the Great Bardic Association," 
which leads up to the Epic of the Tain Bo Chuailgne, the 
greatest of the Irish romances, according to which this great 
tale was at one time lost, and the great Bardic Institution was 
commanded to hunt for and recover it. The fact of it being 
said that the perfect tale was lost for ever "and that only a 
fragmentary and broken form of it would go down to posterity " 
perhaps indicates, as has been pointed out by Sullivan, " that 
the filling up the gaps in the poem by prose narrative is 
meant." In point of fact the tale, as we have it now, consists 
half of verse and half of prose. Nor is this peculiar to the 
Tain. Most of the oldest and many of the modern tales are 
composed in this way. In most cases the verse is of a more 
archaic character and more difficult than the prose. In very 
many an expanded prose narrative of several pages is followed 
by a more condensed poem saying the same thing. So much 
did the Irish at last come to look upon it as a matter of course 
that every romance should be interspersed with poetry, that 
even writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries 
who consciously invented their stories as a modern novelist 
invents his, have interspersed their pieces with passages, in 
verse, as did Comyn in his Turlough mac Stairn, as did the 
author of the Son of Ill-counsel, the author of the Parliament of 
Clan Lopus, the author of the Women's Parliament, and others. 
We may take it, then, that in the earliest days the romances 
were composed in verse and learned by heart by the students 



PAGAN ELEMENT IN IRISH LITER A TURE 261 

— possibly before any alphabet was known at all ; afterwards 
when lacunae occurred through defective memory on the part 
of the reciter he filled up the gaps with prose. Those who 
committed to paper our earliest tales wrote down as much of 
the old poetry as they could recollect or had access to, and 
wrote the connecting narrative in prose. Hence it soon came 
to pass that if a story pretended to any antiquity it had to be 
interspersed with verses, and at last it happened that the Irish 
taste became so confirmed to this style of writing that authors 
adopted it, as I have said, even in the seventeenth and eigh- 
teenth centuries. 

In spite of the mythological and phantastic elements which 
are undoubtedly mingled with the oldest sagas, 

" the manners and customs in which the men of the time lived 
and moved, are depicted," writes Windisch, 1 " with a naive realism 
which leaves no room for doubt as to the former actuality of the 
scenes depicted. In matter of costume and weapons, eating and 
drinking, building and arrangement of the banqueting-hall, manners 
observed at the feast, and much more, we find here the most valuable 
information." " I insist upon it," he says in another place, " that 
Irish saga is the only richly-flowing source of unbroken Celtism." 

All the remaining linguistic monuments of Breton, Cornish, 
and Welsh, " would form," writes M, d'Arbois de Jubainville, 

" un ensemble bien incomplet et bien obscur sans la lumiere que 
la litterature irlandaise projette sur ces debris. C'est le vieil irlandais 
qui forme le trait d'union pour ainsi dire entre les dialectes neo- 
celtiques de la fin du moyen age ou des temps modernes, et le 
Gaulois des inscriptions lapidaires, des monnaies, des noms propres 
conserves par la litterature grecque et la litterature romaine.'' 2 

It may, then, be finally acknowledged that those of the great 
nations of to-day, whose ancestors were mostly Celts, but 
whose language, literature, and traditions have completely dis- 
appeared, must, if they wish to study their own past, turn 

1 " Irische Texte," I., p. 252. 

2 " Etudes grammaticales sur les langues Celtiques," 1881, p. vii. 



262 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

themselves first to Ireland. When we find so much of the 
brief and scanty information given us by the classics, not only 
borne out, but amply illustrated by old Irish literature, when 
we find the dry bones of Posidonius and Caesar rise up again 
before us with a ruddy covering of flesh and blood, it is not 
too much to surmise that in other matters also the various 
Celtic races bore to each other a close resemblance. 

Much more could be said upon this subject, as that the four 
Gallo-Roman inscriptions to Brigantia found in Great Britain 
are really to the Goddess Brigit; 1 that the Brennus who 
burned Rome 390 years before Christ and the Brennus who 
stormed Delphi no years later were only the god Brian, 
under whose tutelage the Gauls marched ; and that Lugu- 
dunum, Lugh's Dun or fortress, is so-called from the god 
Lugh the Long-handed, to whom two Celtic inscriptions are 
found, one in Spain and one in Switzerland, as may be seen 
set forth at length in the volumes of Monsieur d'Arbois de 
Jubainville. 

1 Sec above pp. 53 and 161. 



CHAPTER XXI 

THE OLDEST BOOKS AND POEMS 

The books of saga, poetry, and annals that have come down to 
our day, though so vastly more ancient and numerous than 
anything that the rest of Western Europe has to show, are 
yet an almost inappreciable fragment of the literature that at 
one time existed in Ireland. The great native scholar O'Curry, 
who possessed a unique and unrivalled knowledge of Irish 
literature in all its forms, has drawn up a list of lost books 
which may be supposed to have contained our earliest litera- 
ture. 

We find the poet Senchan Torpeist — according to the 
account in the Book of Leinster, a manuscript which dates 
from about the year 1150 — complaining that the only per- 
fect record of the great Irish epic, the Tain Bo Chuailgne * or 
Cattle-spoil of Cooley, had been taken to the East with the 
Cuilmenn, 2 or Great Skin Book. Now Zimmer, who made 
a special and minute study of this story, considers that the 
earliest redaction of the Tain dates from the seventh century. 

1 Pronounced " Taun Bo Hoo-il-n'ya." The "a" in Tain is pronounced 
nearly like the "a " in the English word " Tarn." 

2 Cuilmenn — it has been remarked, I think, by Kuno Meyer — seems 
cognate with Colmmene, glossed nervus, and Welsh czvln:, "a knot or 
tie." It is found glossed lebar — i.e., leabhar, or " book." 

2G3 



264 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

This legend about Senchan — a real historical poet whose 
eulogy in praise of Columcille, whether genuine or not, 
was widely popular — is probably equally old, and points to 
the early existence of a great skin book in which pagan 
tales were written, but which was then lost. The next 
great book is the celebrated Saltair of Tara, which is alluded 
to in a genuine poem of Cuan O'Lochain about the year 
1000, in which he says that Cormac mac Art drew up the 
Saltair of Tara. Cormac, being a pagan, could not have 
called the book a Saltair or Psalterium, but it may have got the 
name in later times from its being in metre. All that this 
really proves, however, is that there then existed a book about 
the prerogatives of Tara and the provincial kings so old that 
Cuan O'Lochain — no doubt following tradition — was not 
afraid to ascribe it to Cormac mac Art who lived in the third 
century. The next lost book is called the Book of the 
Uacongbhail, upon which both the O'Clerys in their Book 
of Invasions and Keating in his history drew, and which, 
according to O'Curry, still existed at Kildare so late as 1626. 
The next book is called the Cin of Drom Snechta. It is 
quoted in the Leabhar na h-Uidhre, or "Book of the Dun 
Cow" — a MS. of about the year 11 00 — and often in the Book 
of Ballymote and by Keating, who in quoting it says, "And 
it was before the coming of Patrick to Ireland that that book 
existed," * and the Book of Leinster ascribes it to the son 
of a king of Connacht who died either in 379 or 499. The 
next books of which we find mention were said to have 
belonged to St. Longarad, a contemporary of St. Columcille. 
The scribe who wrote the glosses on the Feilire of Angus the 
Culdee, said that the books existed still in his day, but that 
nobody could read them ; for which he accounts by the tale 
that Columcille once paid Longarad a visit in order to see his 
books, but that his host refused to show them, and that Colum- 
cille then said, " May your books be of no use after you, since 
1 For the authorship of this book sec above, p. 71. 



THE OLDEST BOOKS AND POEMS 265 

you have exercised inhospitality about them." On account of 
this the books became illegible after Longarad's death. Angus 
the Culdee lived about the year 800, but Stokes ascribes the 
Feilire to the tenth century ; a view, however, which Mr. 
Strachan's studies on the Irish deponent verb, which is of such 
frequent occurrence in the Feilire, may perhaps modify. At 
what time the scholiast wrote his note on the text is uncertain, 
but it also is very old. It is plain, then, that at this time a 
number of illegible books — illegible no doubt from age — existed ; 
and to account for this illegibility the story of Columcille's 
curse was invented. The Annals of Ulster quote another 
book at the year 527 under the name of the Book of St. 
Mochta, who was a disciple of St. Patrick. They also quote 
the Book of Cuana at the year 468 and repeatedly afterwards 
down to the year 610, while they record the death of Cuana, 
a scribe, at the year 738, after which no more quotations from 
Guana's book occur. 

The following volumes, almost all of which existed prior to 
the year 1100, are also alluded to in our old literature : — The 
Book of Dubhdaleithe ; the Yellow Book of Slane ; the original 
Leabhar na h-Uidhre, or " Book of the Dun Cow " ; the Books 
of Eochaidh O'Flanagain ; a certain volume known as the 
book eaten by the poor people in the desert ; the Book of Inis 
an Duin ; the short Book of Monasterboice ; the Books of 
Flann of Monasterboice ; the Book of Flann of Dungiven ; 
the Book of Downpatrick ; the Book of Derry ; the Book of 
Sabhal Patrick ; the Black Book of St. Molaga ; the Yellow 
Book of St. Moiling ; the Yellow Book of Mac Murrough ; 
the Book of Armagh (not the one now so called) ; the Red 
Book of Mac Egan ; the Long Book of Leithlin ; the Books 
of O'Scoba of Clonmacnois ; the " Duil " of Drom Ceat ; the 
Book of Clonsost ; the Book of Cluain Eidhneach (the ivy 
meadow) in Leix ; and one of the most valuable and often 
quoted of all, Cormac's great Saltair of Cashel, compiled by 
I Cormac mac Culinan, who was at once king of Minister 



266 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

and archbishop of Cashel, 1 and who fell in battle in 903, 
according to the chronology of the "Four Masters." The 
above are certainly only a few of the books in which a large 
early literature was contained, one that has now perished 
almost to a page. Michael O'Clery, in the Preface to his 
Book of Invasions written in 1631, mentions the books 
from which he and his four antiquarian friends compiled their 
work — mostly now perished ! — and adds : — 

" The histories and synchronisms of Erin were written and tested 
in the presence of those illustrious saints, as is manifest in the great 
books that are named after the saints themselves and from their 
great churches ; for there was not an illustrious church in Erin that 
had not a great book of history named from it or from the saints who 
sanctified it. It would be easy, too, to know from the books which 
the saints wrote, and the songs of praise which they composed in 
Irish that they themselves and their churches were the centres of 
the true knowledge, and the archives and homes of the manuscripts 
of the authors of Erin in the elder times. But, alas ! short was the 
time until dispersion and decay overtook the churches of the saints, 



1 " At what time this book was lost," says O'Curry, " we have no precise 
knowledge, but that it existed, though in a dilapidated state, in the year 
1454 is evident from the fact that there is in the Bodleian Library at 
Oxford (Laud 610) a copy of such portions of it as could be deciphered at 
that time, made by Shawn O'Clery for Mac Richard Butler. From the 
contents of this copy and from the frequent references to the original for 
history and genealogies found in the Books of Ballymote, Lecan, and 
others, it must have been an historical and genealogical compilation of 
large size and great diversity." 

A legible copy of the Saltair appears, however, to have existed at 
a much later date. I discovered a curious poem in an uncatalogued MS. 
in the Royal Irish Academy by one David Condon, written apparently at 
some time between the Cromwellian and Williamite wars, in whicl: he 

says — 

" Saltair Chaisill is dearbh gur leigheas-sa 
Leabhar ghleanna-da-locha gan go ba leir dam, 
Leabhar Buidhe Mhuigleann (?) obair aosta," &c. 

I.e., " Surely I have read the Saltair of Cashel, and the Book of Glendaloch 
was certainly plain to me, and the Yellow Book of Mulling (?) {see above, 
p. 210), an ancient work, the Book of Molaga, and the lessons of Cionn- 
faola, and many more (books) along with them which are not (now) found 
in Ireland." 



THE OLDEST BOOKS AND POEMS 267 

their relics, and their books ; for there is not to be found of them 
now [1631] but a small remnant that has not been carried away into 
distant countries and foreign nations — carried away so that their 
fate is unknown from that time unto this." 

As far as actual existing documents go, we have no speci- 
mens of Irish MSS. written in Irish before the eighth century. 
The chief remains of the old language that we have are mostly 
found on the Continent, whither the Irish carried their books 
in great numbers, and unfortunately they are not books of 
saga, but chiefly, with the exception of a few poems, glosses 
and explanations of books used evidently in the Irish ecclesias- 
tical schools. 1 A list of the most remarkable is worth giving 
here, as it will help to show the extraordinary geographical 
diversity of the Irish settlements upon the Continent, and the 
keenness with which their relics have been studied by European 
scholars — French, German, and Italian. The most important 
are the glosses found in the Irish MSS. of Milan, published 
by Ascoli, Zeuss, Stokes, and Nigra ; those in St. Gall — a 
monastery in Switzerland founded by St. Gall, an Irish friend 
of Columbanus, in the sixth century — published by Ascoli and 
Nigra ; those in Wurtzburg, published by Zimmer and Zeuss ; 
those in Carlsruhe, published by Zeuss ; those in Turin, 
published by Zimmer, Nigra, and Stokes in his " Goidelica " ; 
those in Vienna, published by Zimmer in his "Glossae Hibernicae" 
and Stokes in his " Goidelica " ; those in Berne, those in Leyden, 
those in Nancy, and the glosses on the Cambrai Sermon, 
published by Zeuss. 2 Next in antiquity to these are the Irish 
parts of the Book of Armagh, the poems in the MSS. of St. 

1 Such, for example, is the fragment of a commentary on the Psalter 
published by Kuno Meyer in " Hibernica Minora," from Rawlinson, B. 512. 
The original is assigned by him, judging from its grammatical forms, to 
about the year 750. It is very ample and diffuse, and tells about the 
Shophetim, or Sophtim, as the writer calls it, the Didne Haggamim, etc., 
and is an excellent example of the kind of Irish commentaries used by the 
early ecclesiastics. 

2 " Gram. Celt.," p. 1004-7. 



268 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Gall and Milan, 1 and some of the pieces published by Windisch 
in his " Irische Texte." Next to this is probably the 
Martyrology of Angus the Culdee. And then come the 
great Middle-Irish books — the Leabhar na h-Uidhre, the Book 
of Leinster, and the rest. 

From a palneographic point of view the oldest books in 
Ireland are probably the " Domhnach Airgid," a copy of the 
Four Gospels in a triple shrine of yew, silver-plated copper, 
and gold-plated silver, which St. Patrick was believed to have 
given to St. Carthainn when he told that saint with a shrewd 
wisdom, which in later days aroused the admiration of Mr. 
Matthew Arnold, to build himself a church " that should not 
be too near to himself for familiarity nor too far from himself 
for intercourse." It probably dates from the fifth or sixth 
century. The Cathach supposed to have been surreptitiously 
written by Columcille from Finnian's book 2 — a Latin copy of 
the Gospels in Trinity College, Dublin ; the Book of Durrow, 
a beautiful illuminated copy of the same ; the Book of Dim- 
ma, containing the Four Gospels, ritual, and prayers, probably 
a work of the seventh century ; the Book of Moiling, ot 
probably about the same date ; the Gospels of Mac Regol, 
the largest of the Old Irish Gospel books, highly but not 
elegantly coloured, with an interlinear Anglo-Saxon version 
in a late hand carried through its pages ; the Book of Kells, 
the unapproachable glory of Irish illumination, and some other 
ecclesiastical books. After them come the Leabhar na 
h-Uidre and the great books of poems and saga. 

Although the language of these sagas and poems is not that 
of the glosses, but what is called " Middle-Irish," still it does 
not in the least follow that the poems and sagas belong to the 
Middle-Irish period. " The old Middle-Irish manuscripts," 
says Zimmer, " contain for the most part only Old Irish texts 
re-written." 3 " Unfortunately," says Windisch, " every new 

1 Published by Zeuss in his " Gramrnatica Celtica." 

2 Sec above, p. 175. 3 << Kcltische Studicn," Heft i. p. 88. 



THE OLDEST BOOKS AND POEMS 269 

copyist has given to the text more or less of the linguistic garb 
of his own day, so that as far as the language of Irish texts goes, 
it depends principally upon the age of the manuscript that con- 
tains them." 1 And again, in his preface to Adamnan's vision, he 
writes : " Since we know that Irish texts were rewritten by 
every fresh copyist more or less regularly in the speech of his 
own day, the real age or a prose text cannot possibly be 
determined by the linguistic forms of its language." 2 It is 
much easier to tell the age of poetry than prose, for the 
gradual modification of language, altering of words, shortening 
of inflexions, and so on, must interfere with the metre, so that 
when we find a poem in a twelfth-century manuscript written 
in Middle Irish and in a perfect metrical form, we may — no 
matter to what age it is ascribed — be pretty sure that it cannot 
be more than two or three centuries older than the manuscript 
that contains it. Yet even of the poems Dr. Atkinson 
writes : "The poem may be of the eighth century, but the 
forms are in the main of the twelfth." 3 Where poems that 
really are of ancient date have had their language modified 
in transcription so as to render them intelligible, the metre is 
bound to suffer, and this lends us a criterion whereby to gauge 
the age of verse, which is lacking to us when we come to deal 
with prose. 

This modification of language is not uncommon in literature 
and takes place naturally, but I doubt if there ever was a 
literature in which it played the same important part as in 
Irish. Thus let us take the story of the Tain Bo Chuailgne, 
of which I shall have more to say later on. Zimmer, after 
long and careful study of the text as preserved to us in a manu- 
script of about the year 1100, came to the conclusion from the 
murks of Old Irish inflexion, and so forth, which still remain in 
the eleventh-century text, that there had been two recensions of 

Preface to Loinges Mac n-Usnig, " Irische Texte," i. 61. 

2 " Irische Texte," i. p. 167. 

3 Preface to the list of contents of the facsimile Book of Leinster. 



270 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

the story, a pie-Danish, that is, say, a seventh-century one, 
ami a post-Danish, that is a tenth- or eleventh-century one. 
Thus the epic may have been originally committed to paper in 
the seventh century, modified in the tenth, transcribed into 
the manuscripts in which we have it in the eleventh and twelfth, 
and propagated from that down to the eighteenth century, in 
copies every one of which underwent more or less alteration 
in order to render it more intelligible ; and it was in fact in 
an eighteenth-century manuscript, yet one that differed, as I 
subsequently discovered, in few essentials from the copy in the 
Book of Leinster that I first read it. As the bards lived to 
please so they had to please to live. The popular mind only 
receives with pleasure and transmits with readiness popular 
poetry upon the condition that it is intelligible, 1 and hence 
granting that Finn mac Cool was a real historical personage, it 
is perfectly possible that some of his poetry was handed down 
from generation to generation amongst the conservative Gael, 
and slightly altered or modified from time to time to make it 
more intelligible, according as words died out and inflexions be- 
came obsolete. The Oriental philologist, Max Miiller, in 
attempting to explain how myths arose (according to his theory) 
from a disease of language, thinks that during the transition 
period of which he speaks, there would be many words "under- 
stood perhaps by the grandfather, familiar to the father, but 
strange to the son, and misunderstood by the grandson." This 
is exactly what is taking place over half Ireland at this very 
moment, and it is what has always been at work amongst a 
people whose language and literature go back with certainty for 
nearly 1,500 years. Accordingly before the art of writing 
became common, ere yet expensive vellum MSS. and a highly- 

1 With the exception of the ancient Irish prayers like Mairinn Phadraig, 
preserved by tradition, which are for the most part not intelligible to the 
reciters, but which owe their preservation to the promise usually tacked on 
at the end that the reciters shall receive some miraculous or heavenly 
blessing. See my " Religious Songs of Connacht." 



THE OLDEST BOOKS AND POEMS 2/1 

paid class of historians and schools of scribes to a certain extent 
stereotyped what they set down, it is altogether probable that 
people who trusted to the ear and to memory, modified and 
corrupted but still handed down, at least some famous poems, 
like those ascribed to Amergin or Finn mac Cool. That the 
Celtic memory for things unwritten is long I have often 
proved. I have heard from peasants stanzas composed by 
Donogha Mor O'Daly, of Boyle, in the thirteenth cen- 
tury ; I have recovered from an illiterate peasant, in 1890 in 
Roscommon, verses which had been jotted down in phonetic 
spelling in Argyleshire by Macgregor, Dean of Lismore, in 
the year 15 12, and which may have been sung for hundreds 
of years before it struck the fancy of the Highland divine to 
commit them to paper ; x and I have again heard verses in 
which the measure and sense were preserved, but found on 
comparing them with MSS. that several obsolete words had 
been altered to others that rhymed with them and were 
intelligible. 2 For these reasons I should, in many cases, 
refuse absolutely to reject the authenticity of a poem 
simply because the language is more modern than that ot 
the bard could have been to whom it is ascribed, and it 
seems to me equally uncritical either to accept or reject 
much of our earliest poetry, except what is in highly- 
developed metre, as a good deal of it may possibly be the 
actual (but linguistically modified) work of the supposed 
authors. 

This modifying process is something akin to but very 
different in degree from Pope's rewriting of Donne's satires 
or Dryden's version of Chaucer, inasmuch as it was probably 
both unconscious and unintentional. To understand better 
how this modification may have taken place, let us examine a 

1 See my note on the Story of Oscar au fleau, in " Revue Celtiquc," 
vol. xiii. p. 425. 

2 Cf. my note on Bran's colour, at p. 277 of my " Beside the 

Fire." 



272 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

few lines of the thirteenth-century English poem, the " Brut" 
of Laviimon : — 

" And swa ich habbe al niht 
Of mine swevene swithe ithoht, 
For ich what to iwisse 
Agan is al my blisse." 

These lines were, no doubt, intelligible to an ordinary English- 
man at the time. Gradually they become a little modernised, 

thus : — 

" And so I have all night 
Of min-e sweeven swith ythought, 
For I wat to ywiss 
Agone is all my bliss." 

Had these verses been preserved in folk-memory they must 
have undergone a still further modification as soon as the words 
sweeven (dream), swith (much), and ywiss (certainty) began 
to grow obsolete, and we should have the verse modified and 
mangled, perhaps something in this way : — 

" And so I have all the night 
Of my dream, greatly thought, 
For I wot and I wis 
That gone is all my bliss." 

The words "I wot and I wis," in the third line, represent 
just about as much archaism as the popular memory and taste 
will stand without rebelling. Some modification in the direc- 
tion here hinted at may be found in, I should think, more than 
half the manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy to-day, and 
just in the same sense as the lines, 

" For I wot and I wis 
That gone is my bliss," 

are Layamon's ; so we may suppose, 

" Dubthach missi mac do Lugaid 
Laidech lantrait 



THE OLDEST BOOKS AND POEMS 273 

Me rue inmbreith etir Loegaire 
Ocus Patraic," x 

to be the fifth century O'Lugair's, or 

" Leathaid folt fada fraich, 
Forbrid canach fanu finn," 2 

to be Finn mac Cumhail's. 

Of the many poems — as distinguished from sagas, which are 
a mixture of poetry and prose — said to have been produced 
from pagan times down to the eighth century, none can be 
properly called epics or even epopees. There are few continued 
efforts, and the majority of the pieces though interesting for 
a great many reasons to students, would hardly interest an 
English reader when translated. Unfortunately, such a great 
amount of our early literature being lost, we can only judge of 
what it was like through the shorter pieces which have been 
preserved, and even these short pieces read rather jejune and 
barren in English, partly because of the great condensation of 
the original, a condensation which was largely brought about 
by the necessity of versification in difficult metres. In order 
to see beautv in the most ancient Irish verse it is absolutely 
necessary to read it in the original so as to perceive and appreciate 
the alliteration and other tours de force which appear in everv 
line. These verses, for instance, which Meve, daughter or 
Conan, is said to have pronounced over Cuchorb, her hus- 

1 In more modern Irish : — 

" Dubhlhach mise, mac do Lughaidh 
Laoi-each lan-traith 
Me rug an bhreith idir Laoghaire 
Agus Padraig." 

/.<•., " I am Dubhthaeh, son of Lewy the lay-full, full-wise. It is I who 
delivered judgment between Leary and Patrick." Traith is the only obso- 
lete word here. 

2 In modern Irish, " Leathnuighidh folt fada fraoch," i.e., "Leathnuighidh 
fraoch folt fada, foirbridh (fasaidh) canach (ceannabhan) fann fionn," i,c,\ 
''Spreads heath its long hair, flourishes the feeble, (air cotton-grass," 

s 



\-| LITERARY 11] STORY OF IRELAND 

band, in the first century, appear bald enough in a literal 
translation : — 

" Moghcorb's son whom fame conceals [covers] 
Well sheds he blood by his spears, 
A stone over his grave —'tis a pity — 
Who carried battle over Cliu Mail. 

My noble king, he spoke not falsehood, 
His success was certain in every danger, 
As black as a raven was his brow, 
As sharp was his spear as a razor," etc. 

One might read this kind of thing for ever in a translation 
without being struck by anything more than some occasional 
curiosa fellcitas of phrase or picturesque expression, and one 
would never suspect that the original was so polished and com- 
plicated as it really is. Here are these two verses done into 
the exact versification of the original, in which interlinear 
vowel-rhymes, alliterations, and all the other requirements of 
the Irish are preserved and marked : — 

" Mochorb's son of Fiercest Fame, 
Kxown his Name for bloody toil, 
To his Gory Grave is Gone, 

He who Shone o'er SHouting Moyle. 

Kindly King, who Liked not Lies, 

Rash to Rise to Fields of Fame, 
Raven-Black his Brows of fear, 

Razor-Sharp his Spear of flame," etc. 1 

This specimen of Irish metre may help to place much of oui 
poetry in another light, for its beauty depends less upon the 
intrinsic substance of the thought than the external elegance 

1 Here is the first verse of this in the original. The Old Irish is nearly 
unintelligible to a modern. I have here modernised the spelling : — 

"Mac Mogachoirb Cheileas Clu 
Cun fearas Cru thar a ghaibh 
Ail uas a Ligi — budh Liach — 
Baslaide Chliath thar Cliu Mail." 

The rhyming words do not make perfect rhyme as in English, but pretty 
nearly so — clu cm, liath cliath, gdibh mail. 



THE 0LDES1 BOOKS AND POEMS 2/5 

of the framework. We must understand this in order to do- 
justice to our versified literature, for the student must not 
imagine that he will find long-sustained epics or interesting 
narrative poems after the manner of the Iliad or Odyssey, 
or even the Nibelungenlied, or the " Song of Roland ;" none 
such now exist : if they did exist they are lost. The early poems 
consist rather of eulogies, elegies, historical pieces, and lyrics, 
few of them of any great length, and still fewer capable of 
interesting an English reader in a translation. Occasionally we 
meet with touches of nature poetry of which the Gael has 
always been supremely fond. Here is a tentative translation 
made by O'Donovan of a part of the first poem which Finn 
mac Cumhail is said to have composed after his eating of 
the salmon of knowledge : — 

" May-Day, delightful time! How beautiful the colour; the 
blackbirds sing their full lay ; would that Laighaig were here ! The 
cuckoos sing in constant strains. How welcome is ever the noble 
brilliance of the seasons ! On the margin of the branching woods 
the summer swallows skim the stream. The swift horses seek the 
pool. The heath spreads out its long hair, the weak, fair bog-down 
grows. Sudden consternation attacks the signs, the planets, in their 
courses running, exert an influence ; the sea is lulled to rest, flowers 
cover the earth." 

The language of this poem is so old as to be in parts unin- 
telligible, and the broken metre points to the difficulties of 
transmission over a long period of time, yet he would be a bold 
man who would ascribe with certainty the authorship of it to 
Finn mac Cumhail in the third century, or the elegy on Cuchorb 
to Meve, daughter of Conan, a contemporary of Virgil and 
Horace. And yet all the history of these people is known 
and recorded with much apparent plausibility and many 
collateral circumstances connecting them with the men of 
their time. How much of this is genuine historical tradition ? 
How much is later invention ? It is difficult to decide at 
present. 



CHAPTER XXII 



EARLY SAGA AND ROMANCE 



During the golden period of the Greek and Roman genius 
no one ever wrote a romance. Epics they left behind 
them, and history, but the romance, the Danish saga, the 
Irish sgeul or ursgeul was unknown. It was in time of 
decadence that a body of Greek prose romance appeared, 
and with the exception of Petronius' semi-prose " Satyri- 
con," and Apuleius' " Golden Ass," the Latin language pro- 
duced in this line little of a higher character than such works 
as the Gesta Romanorum. In Greece and Italv where the 
genial climate favoured all kinds of open-air representations, 
the great development of the drama took the place of novelistic 
literature, as it did for a long time amongst the English after 
the Elizabethan revival. In Ireland, on the other hand, the 
dramatic stage was never reached at all, but the development 
of the ursgeul, romance, or novel, was quite abnormally great. 
I have seen it more than once asserted, if I mistake not, that 
the dramatic is an inevitable and an early development in the 
history of every literature, but this is to generalise from insuf- 
ficient instances. The Irish literature which kept on develop- 
ing — to some extent at least — for over a thousand years, and of 
which hundreds of volumes still exist, never evolved a drama, nor 
so much, as far as I know, as even a miracle play, although 
these are found in Welsh and even Cornish, What Ireland 

276 



EARLY SAGA AND ROMANCE 277 

did produce, and produce nobly and well, was romance ; from 
the first to the last, from the seventh to the seventeenth 
century, Irishmen, without distinction of class, alike delighted 
in the ursgeul. 

When this form of literature first came into vogue we have no 
means of ascertaining, but the narrative prose probably developed 
at a very early period as a supplement to defective narrative 
verse. Not that verse or prose were then and there committed 
to writing, for it is said that the business of the bards was to 
learn their stories by heart. I take it, however, that they did 
not actually do this, but merely learned the incidents of a story 
in their regular sequence, and that their training enabled them 
to fill these up and clothe them on the spur of the moment in 
the most effective garments, decking them out with passages 
of gaudy description, with rattling alliterative lines and "runs" 
and abundance of adjectival declamation. The bards, no 
matter from what quarter of the island, had all to know the 
same story or novel, provided it was a renowned one, but with 
each the sequence of incidents, and the incidents themselves 
were probably for a long time the same ; but the language in 
which they were tricked out and the length to which they 
were spun depended probably upon the genius or bent of each 
particular bard. Of course in process of time divergences 
began to arise, and hence different versions of the same story. 
That, at least, is how I account for such passages as (C but others 
say that it was not there he was killed, but in," etc., " but some 
of the books say that it was not on this wise it happened, but," 
and so on. 

It is probable that very many novels were in existence before 
the coming of St. Patrick, but highly unlikely that they were 
at that time written down at full length. It was probably only 
after the country had become Christianised and full of schools 
and learning that the bards experienced the desire of writing 
down their sagas, with as much as they could recapture of the 
ancient poetry upon which they were built. In the Book of 



278 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Leinster, a manuscript of the twelfth century, we find an 
extraordinary list of no less than 187 of those romances with 
three hundred and FiFrv of which an ollamh had to be 
acquainted. The ollamh was the highest dignitary amongst 
the bards, and it took him from nine to twelve years' training 
to learn the two hundred and fifty prime stories and the one 
hundred secondary ones along with the other things which 
were required of him. The prime stories— combinations of 
epic and novel, prose and poetry — are divided in the manu- 
scripts into the following romantic catalogue : — Destruc- 
tions of fortified places, Cow spoils (i.e., cattle-raiding 
expeditions), Courtships or wooings, Battles, Cave-stories, 
Navigations, Tragical deaths, Feasts, Sieges, Adventures, 
Elopements, Slaughters, Water-eruptions, Expeditions, Pro- 
gresses, and Visions. " He is no poet," says the Book of 
Leinster, " who does not synchronise and harmonise all the 
stories." We possess, as I have said, the names of 187 such 
stories in the Book of Leinster, and the names of many more 
are given in the tenth- or eleventh-century tale of Mac 
Coise ; and all the known ones, with the exception of one tale 
added later on, and one which, evidently through an error in 
transcription, refers to Arthur instead of Aithirne, are about 
events prior to the year 650 or thereabouts. We may take it, 
then, that this list was drawn up in the seventh century. 

Now, who were the authors of these couple of hundred 
romances ? It is a natural question, but one which cannot be 
answered. There is not a trace of their authorship remaining, 
if authorship be the right word for what I suspect to have been 
the gradual growth of race, tribal, and family history, and of 
Celtic mythology, told and retold, and polished up, and added 
to ; some of them, especially such as are the descendants of a 
pagan mythology, must have been handed down for perhaps 
countless generations, others recounted historical, tribal, or 
family doings, magnified during the course of time, others again 
of more recent date, are perhaps fairly accurate accounts of actual 



EARLY SAGA AND ROMANCE 279 

events, but all prior to about the year 650. I take it that 
so soon as bardic schools and colleges began to be formed, there 
was no class of learning more popular than that which taught 
the great traditionary stories of the various tribes and families 
of the great Gaelic race, and the intercommunication between 
the bardic colleges propagated local tradition throughout all 
Ireland. 

The very essence of the national life of Erin was embodied 
in these stories, but, unfortunately, few out of the enormous 
mass have survived to our day, and these mostly mutilated or 
in mere digests. Some, however, exist at nearly full length, 
quite sufficient to show us what the romances were like, and 
to cause us to regret the irreparable loss inflicted upon our race 
by the ravages of Danes, Normans, and English. Even as it 
is O'Curry asserts that the contents of the strictly historical 
tales known to him would be sufficient to fill up four thousand 
of the large pages of the " Four Masters." He computed that 
the tales about Finn, Ossian, and the Fenians alone would fill 
another three thousand pages. In addition to these we have a 
considerable number of imaginative stories, neither historical nor 
Fenian, such as the cc Three Sorrows of Story-telling " and 
the like, sufficient to fill five thousand pages more, not to speak 
of the more recent novel-like productions of the later Irisii. 1 

It is this very great fecundity of the very early Irish in the 
production of saga and romance, in poetry and prose, which 
best enables us to judge of their early-developed genius, and 
considerable primitive culture. The introduction of Chris- 
tianity neither inspired these romances nor helped to produce 
them ; they are nearly all anterior to it, and had they been 
preserved to us we should now have the most remarkable body 
of primitive myth and saga in the whole western world. It is 
probably this consideration which makes M. Darmesteter say 

1 O'Curry was no doubt accurate, as he ever is, in this computation, but 
there would probably be some repetition in the stones, with lists of names 
and openings common to more than one, and many late poor ones. 



280 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

of Irish literature : " real historical documents we have none 
until the beginning of the decadence — a decadence so glorious, 
that we almost mistake it for a renaissance since the old epic 
sap dries up only to make place for a new budding and 
bourgeoning, a growth less original certainly, but scarcely less 
wonderful if we consider the condition of continental Europe 
at that date." The decadence that M. Darmesteter alludes to 
is the rise of the Christian schools of the fifth and sixth 
centuries, which put to some extent an end to the epic period 
by turning men's thoughts into a different channel. 

It is this " decadence," however, which I have preferred to 
examine first, just because it does rest upon real historical 
documents, and can be proved. We may now, however, 
proceed to the mass of saga, the bulk of which in its earliest 
forms is pagan, and the spirit of which, even in the latest 
texts, has been seldom quite distorted by Christian influence. 
This saga centres around several periods and individuals : some 
of these, like Tuathal and the Boru tribute, Conaire the 
Great and his death, have only one or two stories pertaining to 
them. But there are three cycles which stand out pre- 
eminently, and have been celebrated in more stories and sagas 
than the rest, and of which more remains have been preserved 
to us than of any of the others. These are the Mythological 
Cycle concerning the Tuatha De Danann and the Pre- 
Milesians ; the Heroic, Ultonian, or Red-Branch Cycle, 1 in 
which Cuchulain is the dominating figure; and the Cycle of 
Finn mac Cumhail, Ossian, Oscar, and the High-kings of 
Ireland who were their contemporaries — this cycle may be 
denominated the Fenian or Ossianic. 

1 M. d'Arbois de Jubainville calls this the Ulster, and calls the Ossianic 

the Lcinster Cycle. 



CHAPTER XXIII 



THE MYTHOLOGICAL CYCLE 



The cycle of the mythological stories which group themselves 
round the early invasions of Erin is sparsely represented in 
Irish manuscripts. Not only is their number less, but their 
substance is more confused than that of the other cycles. To 
the comparative mythologist and the folk-lorist, however, they 
are perhaps the most interesting of all, as throwing more light 
than any of the others upon the early religious ideas of the 
race. Most of the sagas connected with this pre-Milesian 
cycle are now to be found only in brief digests preserved 
in the Leabhar Gabhala, 1 or Book of Invasions of Ireland, of 
which large fragments exist in the Books of Leinster and 
Ballymote, and which Michael O'Clery (collecting from all 
the ancient sources which he could find in his day) rewrote 
about the year 1630. 

This tells us all the early history of Ireland and of the races 
that inhabited it before our forefathers landed. It tells us of 
how first a man called Partholan made a settlement in Ireland 
but how in time he and his people all died of the plague 
leaving the land deserted ; and how after that the Nemedians 
or children of Ncmed, colonised the island and multiplied in it 

1 " L'yowar (rhyming to hour) govv-awla," the '' book of the takings o 
holdings of Ireland." . 

281 



282 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

until they began to be oppressed by the Foouo nans, who are 
usually described as African sea-robbers, but the etymology Oi 
whose name seems to point to a mythological origin " men 
from under sea." x A number of battles took place between the 
rival hosts, and the Fomorians were defeated in three battles, 
but after the death of Nemed, who, like Partholan, died of a 
plague, the Fomorians oppressed his people again, and, led by 
a chief called Conaing, built a great tower upon Tory, i.e., 
Tower Island, off the north-west coast of Donegal. On the 
eve of every Samhain [Sou-an, or All Hallow's] the wretched 
Nemediansj had to deliver up to these masters two-thirds of 
their children, corn, and cattle. Driven to desperation by these 
exactions they rose in arms, stormed the tower, and slew 
Conaing, all which the Bojok^f-- Invasions describes at length. 
The Fomorians being reinforced, the Nemedians fought 
them a second time in the same place, but in this battle most 
of them were killed or drowned, the tide having come in and 
washed over them and their foes alike. The crew of one ship, 
however, escaped, and these, after a further sojourn of seven 
years in Ireland, led out of it the surviving remnants of their 
race with the exception of a very few who remained behind 
subject to the Fomorians. Those who left Ireland divided 
into three bands : one sought refuge in Greece, where they 
again fell into slavery ; the second went — some say — to the 
north of Europe ; and the third, headed by a chief called 
Briton Mael — hence, say the Irish, the name of Great Britain 
— found refuge in Scotland, where their descendants remained 
until the Cruithni, or Picts, overcame them. 

After a couple of hundred years the Nemedians who had 
fled to Greece came back again, calling themselves Fir- 
bolg, 2 i.e., u sack " or " bag " men, and held Ireland for 

1 Keating derives it from foghla, "spoil," and muir, "sea," which is an 
impossible derivation, or from jo muirib, as if " along the seas," but it really j 
means " under seas." 

2 Also Fir Domnan and Fir Galeoin, two tribes of the same race. 



THE MYTHOLOGICAL CYCLE 283 

about thirty-five years in peace, when another tribe of invaders 
appeared upon the scene. These were no less than the cele- 
brated Tuatha De Danann, who turned out to be, in fact, 
the descendants of the second band of Nemedians who had 
fled to the north of Europe, and who returned about thirty-six 
years later than their kinsmen, the Firbolg. 

The Tuatha De Danann soon overcame the Firbolg, and 
drove them, after the Battle of North Moytura, 1 into the 
islands along the coast, to Aran, Islay, Rachlin, and the 
Hebrides, 2 after which they assumed the sovereignty of the 
island to themselves. 

This sovereignty they maintained for about two hundred 

1 When the oldest list of current Irish sagas was drawn up, probably in 
the seventh century, only one battle of Moytura was mentioned ; this was 
evidently what is now known as the second battle. In the more recent list 
contained in the introduction to the Senchus Mor there is mention made of 
both battles. There is only a single copy of each of these sagas known to 
exist. Of most of the other sagas of this cycle even the last copy has 
perished. 

2 Long afterwards, at the time that Ireland was divided into five pro- 
vinces, the Cruithnigh, or Picts, drove the Firbolg out of the islands again, 
and they were forced to come back to Cairbre Niafer, king of Leinster, 
who allotted them a territory, but placed such a rack-rent upon them that 
they were glad to fly into Connacht, where Oilioll and Meve — the king 
and queen who made the Tain Bo Chuailgne — gave them a free grant of 
land, and there Uuald Mac Firbis, over two hundred and fifty years ago, 
found their descendants in plenty. According to some accounts, they were 
never driven wholly out of Connacht, and if they are a real race — as, 
despite their connection with the obviously mythical Tuatha De Danann, 
they appear to be — they probably still form the basis of population there. 
Maine Mor, the ancestor of the O'Kellys, is said to have wrested from them 
the territory of Ui Maine (part of Roscommon and Galway) in the sixth 
century. Their name and that of their fellow tribe, the Fir Domnan, 
appear to be the same as the Belgoe, and the Damnonii of Gaul and 
Britain, who are said to have given its name to Devonshire. Despite their 
close connection in the Book of Invasions and early history of Ireland, the 
Firbolg stand on a completely different footing from the De Danann 
tribes. Their history is recorded consecutively from that day to this ; 
many families trace their pedigree to them, and they never wholly dis- 
appeared. No family traces its connection to the De Danann people ; 
they wholly disappear, and are in later times regarded as gods, or demons, 
Or fairies. 



284 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

years, until the ancestors of the present Irish, the Scots, or Gaels, 

or Milesians, as they are variously called, landed and beat the 

Tuatha De Danann, and reigned in their stead until they, too, 

in their turn were conquered by the English. The Book of 

Conquests is largely concerned with their landing and first 

settlements and their battles with the De Danann people 

whom they ended in completely overcoming, after which the 

Tuatha De assume a very obscure position. They appear to 

have for the most part retired off the surface of the country 

into the preen hills and mounds, and lived in these, often 

... . 

appearing amongst the Milesian population, and sometimes 

giving their daughters in marriage to them. From this out 

they are confounded with the Sidhe [Shee], or spirits, now called 

fairies, and to this very day I have heard old men, when 

speaking of the fairies who inhabit ancient raths and interfere 

occasionally in mortal concerns either for good or evil, call 

them by the name of the Tuatha De Danann. 

The first battle of Moytura was fought between the Tuatha 

De Danann and the Firbolg, who were utterly routed, but i 

Nuada, the king of the Tuatha De, lost his hand in the 

battle. As he was thus suffering from a personal blemish, he 

could be no longer king, and the people accordingly decided 

to bestow the sovereignty on Breas [Bras], z whose mother was 

a De Danann, but whose father was a king of the Fomorians, 

a people who had apparently never lost sight of or wholly left 

Ireland since the time of their battles with the Nemedians ' 

over two hundred years before. The mother of Breas, Eiriu, 2 

was a person of authority, and her son was elected to the 

sovereignty on the understanding that if his reign was found 

unsatisfactory he should resign. He gave seven pledges of his 

intention of doing so. At this time the Fomorians again 

1 Bress in the older form. 

2 When the Milesians landed they found a Tuatha De Danann queen, 
called Eiriu, the old form of Eire or Erin, from whom the island was 
believed to take its name. John Scotus is called in old authorities Eriu 
gena, not Erigena. 



THE MYTHOLOGICAL CYCLE 285 

smote Ireland heavily with their imposts and taxes, as they had 
done before when the Nemedians inhabited it. The unfortu- 
nate De Dannan people were reduced to a state of misery. 
02;ma z was obliged to carry wood, and the Dagda himself to 
build raths for their masters, and they were so far reduced as 
to be weak with hunger. 

In the meantime the kingship of Breas was not successful. 
He was hard and niggardly. As the saga of the second battle 
of Moytura puts it — 

" The chiefs of the Tuatha De Danann were dissatisfied, for Breas 
did not grease their knives ; in vain came they to visit Breas ; their 
breaths did not smell of ale. Neither their poets, nor bards, nor 
druids, nor harpers, nor flute-players, nor musicians, nor jugglers, 
nor fools appeared before them, nor came into the palace to amuse 
them." 

Matters reached a crisis when the poet Coirpne came to 
demand hospitality and was shown "into a little house, small, 
narrow, black, dark, where was neither fire nor furniture nor 
bed. He was given three little dry loaves on a little plate. 
When he rose in the morning he was not thankful." He 
gave vent then to the first satire ever uttered in Ireland, which 
is still preserved in eight lines which would be absolutely 
unintelligible except for the ancient glosses. 

After this the people of the De Danann race demanded the 
abdication of Breas, which he had promised in case his reign did 
not please them. He acknowledged his obligation to them, but 
requested a delay of seven years, which they allowed him, on 
condition that he gave them guarantees to touch nothing 
belonging to them during that time, u neither our houses nor 
our lands, nor our gold, nor our silver, nor our cattle, nor 
anything eatable, we shall pay thee neither rent nor fine to the 
end of seven years." This was agreed to. 

But the intention of Breas in demanding a delay of seven 
years was a treacherous one ; he meant to approach his father's 

1 For him see above, pp. 113-15. 



236 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

kindred the Fomprians, and move them to reinstate him at the 
point of the sword. He goes to his mother who tells him 
who his father is, for up to that time he had remained in 
ignorance of it ; and she gives him a ring whereby his father 
Flatha, a king of the Fomorians, may recognise him. He 
departs to the Fomorians, discovers his father and appeals to 
him for succour. By his father he is sent to Balor, a king of 
the Fomorians of the Isles of Norway — a locality probably 
ascribed to the Fomorians after the invasions of the North- 
men — and there gathered together an immense army to subdue 
the Tuatha De Danann and give the island to their relation 
Breas. 

In the meantime Nuada, whose hand had been replaced by 
a silver one, reascends the throne and is joined by Lugh of the 
Long-hand, the " Ildana" or "man of various arts." This Lugh 
was a brother of the Dagda and of Ogma, and is perhaps the 
best-known figure among the De Danann personalities. Lugh 
and the Dagda and Ogma and Goibniu the smith and Dian- 
cecht the leech met secretly every day at a place in Meath for 
a whole year, and deliberated how best to shake off the yoke 
of the Fomorians. Then they held a general meeting of the 
Tuatha De and spoke with each one in secret. 

" ' How wilt thou show thy power? 5 said Lugh, to the sorcerer 
Mathgcn. 

" ' By my art,' answered Mathgen, ' I shall throw down the moun- 
tains of Ireland upon the Fomorians, and they shall fall with their 
heads to the earth ; ' then told he to Lugh the names of the twelve 
principal mountains of Ireland which were ready to do the bidding 
of the goddess Dana 1 and to smite their enemies on every side. 



1 Jubainville translates Tuatha De Danann by "tribes of the goddess 
Dana.'' Danann is the genitive of Dana, and Dana is called the "mother 
oi the gods," but she is not a mother of the bulk of the De Danann 
race, so that Jubainville's translation is a rather venturesome one, and 
the Old Irish themselves did not take the word in this meaning; they 
explained it as "the men of science who were as it were gods." "Tuatha 
de Danann, i.e., Dee in taes dana acus ande an taes trcbtha," i.e., "the nun 
of science were (as it were) gods and the laymen no-gods." 



THE MYTHOLOGICAL CYCLE 28; 

" Lugh asked the cup-bearer : ' In what way wilt thou show thy 
power ? ' 

" ' I shall place,' answered the cup-bearer, ' the twelve principal 
lakes of Ireland under the eyes of the Fomorians, but they shall find 
no water in them, however great the thirst which they may feel ; ' 
and he enumerated the lakes, ' from the Fomorians the water shall 
hide itself, they shall not be able to take a drop of it ; but the same 
lakes will furnish the Tuatha De Danann with water to drink during 
the whole war, though it should last seven years.' 

" The Druid Figal, the son of Mamos, said, ' I shall make three 
rains of fire fall on the faces of the Fomorian warriors; I shall take 
from them two-thirds of their valour and courage, but so often as 
the warriors of the De Danann shall breathe out the air from their 
breasts, so often shall they feel their courage and valour and strength 
increase. Even though the war should last seven years it shall not 
fatigue them.' 

" The Dagda answered, ' All the feats which you three, sorcerer, 
cup-bearer, druid, say you can do, I myself alone shall do them.' 

" ' It is you then are the Dagda,' 1 said those present, whence came 
the name of the Dagda which he afterwards bore." 

Lugh then went in search of the three gods of Dana — 
Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba (whom he afterwards put to 
death for slaying his father, as is recorded at length in the 
saga of the " Fate of the Children of Tuireann " 2 ) and 
with these and his other allies he spent the next seven years 
in making preparations for the great struggle with the 
Fomorians. 

This saga and the whole story of the Tuatha De Danann 
contending with the Fomorians, who are in one place in the 
saga actually called sidhe y or spirits, is all obviously mytho- 
logical, and has usually been explained, by D'Arbois de Jubain- 
ville and others, as the struggle between the gods or good 
spirits and the evil deities. 

1 Whitley Stokes translates this by "good hand." It is explained 
as— Dago-dcvo-s, " the good god." The "Dagda, i.e., daigh de, i.e., dea 
sainemail ag na geinntib e," i.e., " Dagda ie ignis Dei," for " with the 
heathen he was a special god," MS. 16, Advocates' Library, Edinburgh. 

2 Paraphrased by me in English verse in the "Three Sorrows of 
Story-telling." 



283 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

The following episode also shows the wild mythological 
character of the whole. 

■• Dagda," says the saga, "had a habitation at Glenn-Etin in the north, 
He had arranged to meet a woman at Glenn-Etin on the day of 
Samhan [November day] just a year, day for day, before the battle 
of Moytura. The Unius, a river of Connacht, flows close beside 
Glenn-Etin, to the south. Dagda saw the woman bathe herself in the 
Unius at [Kesh] Coran. One of the woman's feet in the water 
touched Alloc! Eche, that is to say Echumech to the south, the 
other foot also in the water touched Lescuin in the north. Nine 
tresses floated loose around her head. Dagda approached and 
accosted her. From thenceforth the place has been named the 
Couple's Bed. The woman was the goddess Mor-rigu" — 

the goddess of war, of whom we shall hear more in connection 
with Cuchulain. 

As for the Dagda himself, his character appears somewhat 
contradictory. Just as the most opposite accounts of Zeus are 
met with in Greek mythology, some glorifying him as thron- 
ing in Olympus supreme over gods and men, others as playing 
low and indecent tricks disguised as a cuckoo or a bull ; so we 
find the Dagda — his real name was Eochaidh the Ollamh 
— at one time a king of the De Danann race and organiser 
of victory, but at another in a less dignified but more clearly 
mythological position. He is sent by Lugh to the Fomorian 
camp to put them off with talk and cause them to lose time 
until the De Danann armaments should be more fully ready. 
The following account exhibits him, like Zeus at times, in a 
very unprepossessing character : — 

" When the Dagda had come to the camp of the Fomorians he 
demanded a truce, and he obtained it. The Fomorians prepared 
a porridge for him ; it was to ridicule him they did this, for he 
greatly loved porridge. They filled for him the king's cauldron 
which was five handbreadths in depth. They threw into it eighty 
pots of milk and a proportionate quantity of meal and fat, with goats 
and sheep and swine which they got cooked along with the rest. 
Then they poured the broth into a hole dug in the ground. ' Unless 
you cat all that's there,' said Indcch to him, 'you shall be put to 



THE MYTHOLOGICAL CYCLE 289 

death ; we do not want you to be reproaching us, and we must 
satisfy you.' The Dagda took the spoon ; it was so great that in the 
hollow of it a man and a woman might be contained. The pieces 
that went into that spoon were halves of salted pigs and quarters of 
bacon. The Dagda said, ' Here is good eating, if the broth be as 
good as its odour,' and as he carried the spoonful to his mouth, he 
said, ' The proverb is true that good cooking is not spoiled by a 
bad pot.' x 

" When he had finished he scraped the ground with his finger to 
the very bottom of the hole to take what remained of it, and after 
that he went to sleep to digest his soup. His stomach was greater 
than the greatest cauldrons in large houses, and the Fomorians 
mocked at him. 

" He went away and came to the bank of the Eba. He did not 
walk with ease, so large was his stomach. He was dressed in very 
bad guise. He had a cape which scarcely reached below his 
shoulders. Beneath that cloak was seen a brown mantle which 
descended no lower than his hips. It was cut away above and very 
large in the breast. His two shoes were of horses' skin with the 
hair outside. He held a wheeled fork, which would have been 
heavy enough for eight men, and he let it trail behind him. It dug 
a furrow deep enough and large enough to become the frontier 
mearn between two provinces. Therefore is it called the ' track of 
the Dagda's club.' " 

When the fighting began, after the skirmishing of the first 
days, the De Danann warriors owed their victory to their 
superior preparations. The great leech Diancecht cured the 
wounded, and the smith Goibniu and his assistants kept the 
warriors supplied with constant relays of fresh lances. The 
Fomorians could not understand it, and sent one of their 
warriors, apparently in disguise, to find out. He was Ruadan, 
a son of fireas by a daughter of Dagda. 

"On his return he told the Fomorians what the smith, the carpenter, 
the worker in bronze, and the four leeches who were round the 
spring, did. They sent him back again with orders to kill the smith 
Goibniu. He asked a spear of Goibniu, rivets of Credne the bronze- 
worker, a shaft of Luchtaine the carpenter, and they gave him 
what he asked. There was a woman there busy in sharpening the 

1 Thus perilously translated by Jubainville ; Stokes does not attempt it. 

T 



290 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

weapons. She was Cron, mother of Fianlug. She sharpened the 
spear for Ruadan. It was a chief who handed Ruadan the spear, 
and thence the name of chief-spear given to this day to the 
weaver's beam in Erin. 

"When he had got the spear Ruadan turned on Goibniu and smote 
him with the weapon. But Goibniu drew the javelin from the 
wound and hurled it at Ruadan ; who was pierced from side to side, 
and escaped to die among the Fomorians in presence of his father. 
Brig [his mother, the Dagda's daughter] came and bewailed her 
son. First she uttered a piercing cry, and thereafter she made 
moan. It was then that for the first time in Ireland were heard 
moans and cries of sorrow. It was that same Brig who invented 
the whistle used at night to give alarm signals " — 

the mythological genesis of the saga is thus obviously marked 
by the first satire, first cry of sorrow, and first whistle being 
ascribed to the actors in it. 

In the end the whole Fomorian army moved to battle in 
their solid battalions, " and it was to strike one's hand against 
a rock, or thrust one's hand into a nest of serpents, or put 
one's head into the fire, to attack the Fomorians that day." 
The battle is described at length. Nuada the king of the De 
Danann is killed by Balor. Lugh, whose counsel was con- 
sidered so valuable by the De Danann people that they put an 
escort of nine round him to prevent him from taking part in 
the fighting, breaks away, and attacks Balor the Fomorian 
king. 

" Balor had an evil eye, that eye only opened itself upon the 
plain of battle. Four men had to lift up the eyelid by placing 
under it an instrument. The warriors, whom Balor scanned 
with that eye once opened, 1 could not — no matter how numerous 
--resist their enemies." 

When Lugh had met and exchanged some mystical and 

1 A legend well known to the old men of Galway and Roscommon, who 
have often related it to me, tells us that when Conan (Finn mac Cumhail's 
Thersites) looked through his fingers at the enemy, they were always 
defeated. He himself did not know this, nor any one except Finn, who 
tried to make use of it without letting Conan know his own power. 



THE MYTHOLOGICAL CYCLE 291 

unintelligible language with him, Balor said, " Raise my 
eyelid that I may see the braggart who speaks with me." 

" His people raise Balor's eyelid. Lugh from his sling lets 
fly a stone at Balor which passes through his head, carrying 
with it the venomous eye. Balor's army looked on." The 
M6r-rigu, the goddess of war, arrives, and assists the Tuatha De 
Danann and encourages them. Ogma slays one of the 
Fomorian kings and is slain himself. The battle is broken 
at last on the Fomorians ; they fly, and Breas is taken 
prisoner, but his life is spared. 

" It was," says the saga, " at the battle of Moytura that Ogma, 
the strong man, found the sword of Tethra, the King of the 
Fomorians. Ogma drew that sword from the sheath and cleaned 
it. It was then that it related to him all the high deeds that it had 
accomplished, for at this time the custom was when swords were 
drawn from the sheath they used to recite the exploits 1 they had 
themselves been the cause of. And thence comes the right which 
swords have, to be cleaned when they are drawn from the sheath ; 
thence also the magic power which swords have preserved ever 
since " — 

to which curious piece of pagan superstition an evidently 
later Christian redactor adds, " weapons were the organs of 
the demon to speak to men. At that time men used to 
worship weapons, and they were a magic safeguard." 

The saga ends in the episode of the recovery of the Dagda's 
harp, and in the cry of triumph uttered by the Mor-rigu and 
by Bodb, her fellow-goddess of war, as they visited the various 
heights of Ireland, the banks of streams, and the mouths of 
floods and great rivers, to proclaim aloud their triumph and 
the defeat of the Fomorians. 

M. d'Arbois de Jubainville sees in the successive colonisations 
of Partholan, the Nemedians, and the Tuatha De Danann, an 
Irish version of the Greek legend of the three successive ages 

1 There is a somewhat similar passage ascribing sensation to swords in 
the Saga of Cuchulain's sickness. 



292 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

of gold, silver, and brass. The Greek legend of the Chimaera, 
otherwise Bellerus, the monster slain by Bellerophon, he 
equates with the Irish Balor of the evil eye ; the fire from the 
throat of Bellerus, and the evil beam shot from Balor's eye may 
originally have typified the lightning. 1 

1 The First Battle of Moytura, the Second Battle of Moytura, and the 
Death of the Children of Tuireann are three sagas belonging to this cycle. 
Others, now preserved in the digest of the Book of Invasions, are, the Pro- 
gress of Partholan to Erin, the Progress of Nemed to Erin, the Progress of 
the Firbolg, the Progress of the Tuatha De Danann, the Journey of Mile- 
son of Bile to Spain, the Journey of the Sons of Mile from Spain to Erin, 
the Progress of the Cruithnigh (Picts) from Thrace to Erin and thence 
into Alba. 



CHAPTER XXIV 

THE HEROIC OR RED BRANCH CYCLE CUCHULAIN 

The mythological tales that we have been glancing at deal 
with the folk who are fabled as having first colonised Erin ; 
they treat of peoples, races, dynasties, the struggle between 
good and evil principles. The whole of their creations are 
thrown back, even by the Irish annalists themselves, into the 
dim cloud-land of an unplumbcd past, ages before the dawn 
of the first Olympiad, or the birth of the wolf-suckled twins 
who founded Rome. There is over it all a shadowy sense of 
vagueness, vastness, uncertainty. 

The Heroic Cycle, on the other hand, deals with the history 
of the Milesians themselves, the present Irish race, within a 
well-defined space of time, upon their own ground, and though 
it does not exactly fall within the historical period, yet it does 
not come so far short of it that it can be with any certainty 
rejected as pure work of imagination or poetic fiction. It is 
certainly the finest of the three greater saga-cycles, and the 
epics that belong to it are sharply drawn, numerous, clear cut, 
and ancient, and for the first time we $eem y at least, to find 
ourselves upon historical ground, although a good deal of this 
seeming may turn out to be illusory. Yet the figures of 
Cuchulain, Conor mac Nessa, Naoise, and Deirdre, Meve, 

293 



294 L 1 TER. I R ) " HIS T( >R ) r OF IRELAND 

Oilioll, and Conall Cearnach, have about them a" great deal of 
the circumstantiality that is entirely lacking to the dim, mist- 
magnified, and distorted figures of the Dagda, Nuada, Lugh 
the Long-handed, and their fellows. 

The gods come and go as in the Iliad, and according to 
some accounts leave their posterity behind them. Cuchulain 
himself, the incarnation of Irish apiariia, is according to 
certain authorities the son of the god Lugh the Long-handed. 1 
He himself, like another Anchises, is beloved of a goddess and 
descends into the Gaelic Elysium, 2 and the most important 
epic of the cycle is largely conditioned by an occurrence 
caused by the curse of a goddess, an occurrence wholly im- 
possible and supernatural. 3 Yet these are for the most part 
excrescences no more affecting the conduct of the history 
than the actions of the gods affect the war round Troy. 
Events, upon the whole, are motivated upon fairly reasonable 
human grounds, and there is a certain air of probability 
about them. The characters who now make their appearance 
upon the scene are not long prior to, or are contemporaneous 

1 Sec " Compert Conculaind," by Windisch in " Irische Texte," t. i. p. 
134, and Jubainville's " Epopee Celtique en Irlande," p. 22. 

2 Sec the story of Cuchulain's sick-bed, translated by O'Curry in the first 
volume of the " Atlantis," and by Mr. O'Looney in Sir J. Gilbert's " Fac- 
similes of the National MSS. of Ireland," and by Windisch in " Irische 
Texte," vol. i., pp. 195-234, and by M. de Jubainville in his " Epopee 
Celtique," p. 174, and lastly, Mr. Nutt's " Voyage of Bran," vol. ii., p. 38. 

3 This is the periodic curse which overtook the Ulstermen at certain 
periods, rendering them feeble as a woman in child-bed, in consequence 
of the malediction of the goddess Macha, who was, just before the birth of 
her children, inhumanly obliged by the Ultonians to run against the king's 
horses. The only people of the northern province free from this curse 
were the children born before the curse was uttered, the women, and the 
hero Cuchulain. It transmitted itself from father to son for nine genera- 
tions, and is said to have lasted five nights and four days, or four nights 
and live days. But one would think from the Tain Bo Chuailgne that it 
must have lasted much longer. For this curse see Jubainville's " Epopee 
Celtique," p. 320. I was, not long ago, told a story by a peasant in the 
county Galway not unlike it, only it was related of the mother of the 
celebrated boxer Donnelly. 



THE RED BRANCH CYCLE— CUCHULAIN 295 

with, the birth of Christ ; and the wars of the Tuatha De 
Danann, Nemedians, and Fomorians, are left some seventeen 
hundred years behind. 

This cycle, which I have called the " Heroic " or " Red 
Branch," might also be named the " Ultonian," because it 
deals chiefly with the heroes of the northern province. One 
saga relates the birth of Conor mac Nessa. His mother was 
Ness and his father was Fachtna Fathach, king of Ulster, but 
according to what is probably the oldest account, his father 
was Cathba the Druid. This saga relates how, through the 
stratagem of his mother Ness, Conor slipped into the kingship 
of Ulster, displacing Fergus mac Roigh [Roy], the former king, 
who is here represented as a good-natured giant, but who appears 
human enough in the other sagas. 1 Conor's palace is described 
with its three buildings; that of the Red Branch, where were 
kept the heads and arms of vanquished enemies ; that of the 
Royal Branch, where the kings lodged ; and that of the 
Speckled House, where were laid up the shields and spears 
and swords of the warriors of Ulster. It was called the 
Speckled or Variegated House from the gold and silver of the 
shields, and gleaming of the spears, and shining of the goblets, 
and all arms were kept in it, in order that at the banquet 
when quarrels arose the warriors might not have wherewith 
to slay each other. 

Conor's palace at Emania contained, according to the Book 
of Leinster, one hundred and fifty rooms, each large enough 
for three couples to sleep in, constructed of red oak, and 
bordered with copper. Conor's own chamber was decorated 
with bronze and silver, and ornamented with golden birds, in 
whose eyes were precious stones, and was large enough for thirty 

1 Except in one place in the Tain Bo Chuailgne, where his sword is 
spoken of, which was like a thread in his hand, but which when he smote 
with it extended itself to the size of a rainbow, with three blows of which 
upon the ground he raised three hills. The description of Fergus in the 
Conor story preserved in the Book of Leinster, is simply and frankly 
that of a giant many times the size of an ordinary man. 



296 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

warriors to drink together in it. Above the kind's head hung 
his silver wand with three golden apples, and when he shook 
it silence reigned throughout the palace, so that even the fall 
of a pin might be heard. A large vat, always full of good 
drink, stood ever on the palace floor. 

Another story tells of Cuchulain's mysterious parentage. 
His mother was a sister of King Conor ; consequently he was 
the king's nephew. 

Another again relates the wooing of Cuchulain, and how 
he won Emer for his wife. 

Another is called Cuchulain's "Up-bringing," or teaching, part 
of which, however, is found in the piece called the "Wooing 
of Emer." This saga relates how he, with two other of the 
Ultonians, went abroad to Alba to perfect their warlike 
accomplishments, and how they placed themselves under the 
tuition of different female-warriors, 1 who taught them various 
and extraordinary feats of arms. He traverses the plain of 
Misfortune by the aid of a wheel and of an apple given him 
by an unknown friend, and reaches the great female instructress 
Scathach, whose daughter falls in love with him. 

An admirable example occurs to me here, of showing in the 
concrete that which I have elsewhere laid stress upon, namely, 
the great elaboration which in many instances we find in the 
modern versions of sagas, compared with the antique vellum 
texts. It does not at all follow that because a story is written 
down with brevity in ancient Irish, it was also told with 
brevity. The oldest form of the saga of Cuchulain's " Wooing 
of Emer" contains traces of a pre-Danish or seventh-century 
text, but the condensed and shortened relation of the saga 
found in the oldest manuscript of it, is almost certainly not 
the form in which the bards and ollavs related it. On the 
contrary, I believe that the stories now epitomised in ancient 
vellum texts were even then told, though not written down, 

1 The female warrior and war-teacher was not uncommon among the 
Celts, as the examples of Boadjcea and of Meve of Connacht show. 



THE RED BRANCH CYCLE— CUCHULAIN 297 

at full length, and with many flourishes by the bards and 
professed story-tellers, and that the skeletons merely, or as 
Keating calls it, the " bones of the history," J were in most 
instances all that was committed to the rare and expensive 
parchments. It is more than likely that the longer modern 
paper redactions, though some of the ancient pagan traits, 
especially those most incomprehensible to the moderns, may 
be missing, yet represent more nearly the manner of the 
original bardic telling, than the abridgments of twelfth or 
thirteenth-century vellums. 

In this case the ancient recension, 2 founded on a pre-Danish 
text, merely mentions that Scathach's house, at which Cuchulain 
arrives, after leaving the plain of Misfortune, 

" was built upon a rock of appalling height. Cuchulain followed 
the road pointed out to him. He reached the castle of Scathach. 
He knocked at the door with the handle of his spear and entered. 
Uathach, the daughter of Scathach, meets him. She looked at him, 
but she spoke not, so much did the hero's beauty make her love 
him. She went to her mother and told her of the beauty of the man 
who had newly come. ' That man has pleased you,' said her mother. 
'He shall come to my couch,' answered the girl, 'and I shall sleep 
at his side this night.' ' Thy intention displeases me not,' said her 
mother." 

One can see at a glance how bald and brief is all this, because 
it is a precis, and vellum was scarce. I venture to say that no 
bard ever told it in this way. The scribes who first committed 
this to parchment, say in the seventh or eighth century, probably 
wrote down only the leading incidents as they remembered 
them. They may not have been themselves either bards, 
ollavs, or story-tellers. It is chiefly in the later centuries, 
after the introduction of paper, when the economising of 
space ceased to be a matter of importance, that we find out- 
sagas told with all the redundancy of description, epithet, and 
incident with which I suspect the very earliest bards em- 
bellished all those sagas of which we have now only little more 
1 " Cnamha an tseanchusa," 2 Rawlinson, B. 512, 



298 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

than the skeletons. Compare, for instance, the ancient version 
which 1 have just given, with the longer modern versions which 
have come down to us in several paper manuscripts, of which I 
here use one in my own possession, copied about the beginning 
of the century bv a scribe named O'Mahon, upon one of the 
islands on the Shannon. 

In the first place this version tells us that on his arrival at 
Scathach's mansion he finds a number of her scholars and other 
warriors engaged in hurling outside the door of her fortress. 
He joins in the game and defeats them — this is a true folk-lore 
introduction. He finds there Naoise, Ardan, and Ainnle, the 
three sons of Usnach, celebrated in perhaps the most touching 
saga of this whole cycle, and another son of Erin with them. 
This is a literary touch, by one who knew his literature. 1 
Learning that he is come from Erin, they ask news of their native 
country, ind salute him with kisses. They then bring him to 
the Bridge of the Cliffs, and show him what their work is 
during the first year, which was learning to pass this bridge. 

" Wonderful," says the saga, " was the sight that bridge afforded 
when any one would leap upon it, for it narrowed until it became as 
narrow as the hair of one's head, and the second time it shortened 
until it became as short as an inch, and the third time it grew 
slippery until it was as slippery as an eel of the river, and the 
fourth time it rose up on high against you until it was as tall as the 
mast of a ship." 

All the warriors and people on the lawn came down to see 
Cuchulain attempting to cross this bridge. In the meantime 
Scathach's grianan or sunny house is described : " It had seven 
great doors, and seven great windows between every two doors 
of them, and thrice fifty couches between every two windows 
of them, and thrice fifty handsome marriageable girls, in scarlet 
cloaks, and in beautiful and blue attire, attending and waiting 
upon Scathach." 

1 For Deirdrc in her lament over the three does call them " three 
pupils of Scathach." 



THE RED BRANCH CYCLE— CUCHULAIN 299 

Then Scathach's lovely daughter, looking from the windows 
of the grianan, perceives the stranger attempting the feat of 
the bridge, and she falls in love with him upon the spot. Her 
emotions are thus described : " Her face and colour constantly 
changed, so that now she would be as white as a little white 
flowret, and again she would become scarlet," and in the work 
she was embroidering she put the gold thread where the silver 
thread should be, and the silver thread into the place where 
the gold thread should go ; and when her mother notices it, 
she excuses herself by saying beautifully, "I would greatly 
grieve should he not return alive to his own people, in what- 
ever part of the world they may be, for I know that there 
is some one to whom it would be anguish to know that he 
is thus." 

This refined reflection of the girl we may with certainty 
ascribe to the growth of modern sentiment, and it is extremely 
instructive to compare it with the ancient, and no doubt really 
pagan version ; but I strongly suspect that the bridge over the 
cliffs is no modern embellishment at all, but part of the original 
saga, though omitted from the pre-Norse text which only tells us 
that Scathach's house was on the top of a rock of appalling 
height. 

It was during this sojourn of Cuchulain in foreign lands 
that he overcame the heroine Aoife, 1 and forced her into a 
marriage with himself. He returned home afterwards, having 
left instructions with her to keep the child she should bear 
him, if it were a daughter, "for with every mother goes the 
daughter," but if it were a son she was to rear him until he 
should be able to perform certain hero-feats, and until his 
finder should be lartre enough to fill a rinc; which Cuchulain 
left with her for him. Then she was to send him into 
Erin, and bid him tell no man who he was ; also he desired 

1 Pronounced " Ecfa." The triphthong aoi has always the sound of cc 
i in English. The stepmother of the Children of Lir was also called 
A Aoife. 



300 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

her not to reach him the feat of the Gae-Bulg, "but, 
however," says the saga, " it was ill that command turned 
out, for it was of that it came to pass that Conlaoch [the son] 
fell by Cuchulain." * 

I know of no prose saga of the touching story of the death 
of this son, slain by his own father, except the resume given or 
it by Keating, 2 but there exists a poem or epopee upon the 
subject which was always a great favourite with the Irish 
scribes, and of which numerous but not ancient copies exist. 
This is the Irish Sohrab and Rustum, the Celtic Hildebrand 
and Hadubrand. The son comes into Ireland, but in con- 
sequence of his mother's command, refuses to tell his name. 
This is looked upon as indicating hostility, and many of the 
Ultonians fight with him, but he overcomes them all, even the 
great Conall Cearnach. Conor in despair sends for Cuchulain, 
who with difficulty slays him by the feat of the Gae-Bolg, 
and then finds out when too late that the dying champion is 
his own son. So familiar to the modern Irish scribes was this 
piece that in my copy, in the last verse, which ends with 
Cuchulain's lament over his son — 

" I am the bark (buffeted) from wave to wave, 
I am the ship after the losing of its rudder, 



1 I quote this from my paper version. The oldest text only says that 
" Cuchulain told her that she should bear him a son, and that upon a 
certain day in seven years' time that son should go to him ; he told her what 
name she should give him, and then he went away." 

2 P. 279 of John O'Mahony's edition, translated also by M. de Jubain- 
ville in his "Epopee Celtique," who comparing the Irish story with its 
Germanic counterpart expresses himself strongly on their relative merits : 
" Tout est puissant, logique, primitif, dans la piece irlandaise ; sa concord- 
ance avec la piece persanne atteste une haute antiquite. Elle peut remonter 
aux epoques celtiques les plus anciennes, et avoir ete du nombre des 
carmina chantes par les Gaulois a la bataille de Clusium eh 295 av. J. — C. 
Le poeme allemand dont on a une copie du huitieme siecle est une 
imitation inintelligente et affaiblie du chant celtique qui a du retentir sur 
les rives du Danube et du Mein mille ans plus tot, et dont la redaction 
germanique est l'ceuvre de quelque naif Macpherson, predecesseur 
honnC'lemcnt inhabile de celui du dix-huitieme siecle.'" 



THE RED BRANCH CYCLE— CUCHULAIN 301 

I am the apple upon the top of the tree 
That little thought of its falling." 1 

instead of the text of the third line stands a rough picture of a 
tree with a large apple on the top ! 

Another saga 2 tells of Cuchulain's geasa [gassa] or restric- 
tions. It was gets or tabu to him to narrate his genealogy 
to one champion, as it was also to his son Conlaoch, to refuse 
combat to any one man, to look upon the exposed bosom of 
a woman, to come into a company without a second invita- 
tion, to accept the hospitality of virgins, to boast to a woman, 
to let the sun rise before him in Emania, he must when there 
rise before it, etc. There is in this saga a graphic description 
of the pagan king's retinue journeying with him to be fed in 
the house of a retainer. 

" All the Ultonian nobles set out ; a great train of provincials, sons 
of kings and chiefs, young lords and men-at-arms, the curled and 
rosy youth of the kingdom, and the maidens and fair ringleted 
ladies of Ulster. Handsome virgins, accomplished damsels, and 
splendid, fully-developed women were there. Satirists and scholars 
were there, and the companies of singers and musicians, poets who 
composed songs and reproofs, and praising-poems for the men of 
Ulster. There came also with them from Emania historians, judges, 
horse-riders, buffoons, tumblers, fools, and performers on horseback. 
They all went by the same way, behind the king." 3 

Dismissing Cuchulain for the present, we pass on now to 
another personality of the Red Branch saga — the Lady 
Deirdre. 

1 " Is me an bare o thuinn go tuinn, 
Is me an long iar ndul d'a stiur. 
Is me an t-ubhall i mbarr an chroinn 
Is beag do shaoil a thuitim." 

See Miss Brooke's " Reliques of Ancient Irish Poetry," 2nd ed. p. 393. 
See also Kuno Meyer's note at p. xv of his edition of Catli Finntragha, in 
which he bears further evidence to the antiquity and persistence of this 
story. 

2 See the Book of Leinster, 107-111, a MS. copied about the year 1150. 

3 Thus translated by my late lamented friend and accomplished scholar 
Father James Keegan of St. Louis. 



CHAPTER XXV 



DEIRDRE 



One of the key-stone stories of the Red Branch Cycle is 
Deirdre, or the Fate of the Children of Usnach. Cuchulain, 
though he appears in this saga, is not a prominent figure in it. 
This piece is perhaps the finest, most pathetic, and best- 
conceived of any in .the whole range of our literature. But 
like much of that literature it exists in the most various 
recensions, and there are different accounts given of the death 
of all the principal characters. 

This saga commences with the birth of Deirdre. King 
Conor and his Ultonians had gone to drink and feast in the 
house of Felim, Conor's chief story-teller, and during their 
stay there Felim's wife gives birth to a daughter. Cathba the 
Druid prophesies concerning the infant, and foretells that much 
woe and great calamities shall yet come upon Ulster because 
of her. He names her Deirdre. 1 The Ultonians are smitten 
with horror at his prophecies, and order her to be instantly put 
to death. The most ancient text, that of the twelfth-century 
Book of Leinster, tells the beginning of this saga exceedingly 
tersely. 

1 Pronounced " Dare-drS," said to mean " alarm." Jubainville translates it 
" Celle-qui-se-debat." 
302 



DEIRDRE 303 

" ' Let the girl be slain,' cried the warriors. ' Not so/ said King 
Conor, ' but bring ye her to me to-morrow ; she shall be brought up 
as I shall order, and she shall be the woman whom I shall marry.' 
The Ultonians ventured not to contradict the King ; they did as he 
commanded. 

" Deirdre was brought up in Conor's house. She became the 
handsomest maiden in Ireland. She was reared in a house apart : no 
man was allowed to see her until she should become Conor's wife. 
No one was permitted to enter the house except her tutor, her nurse, 
and Lavarcam, 1 whom they ventured not to keep out, for she was a 
druidess magician whose incantations they feared. 

" One winter day Deirdre's tutor slew a young tender calf upon 
the snow outside the house, which he was to cook for his pupil. 
She beheld a raven drinking the blood upon the snow. She said to 
Lavarcam, ' The onty man I could love would be one who should 
have those three colours, hair black as the raven, cheeks red as the 
blood, body white as the snow.' ' Thou hast an opportunity,' 
answered Lavarcam, ' the man whom thou desirest is not far off, 
he is close to thee in the palace itself ; he is Naesi, son of Usnach.' 
' I shall not be happy,' answered Deirdre, ' until I have seen him.' " 

This famous story "which is known," as Dr. Cameron puts 
it, "over all the lands of the Gael', both in Ireland and 
Scotland," 2 has been more fortunate than any other in the 
whole range of Irish literature, for it has engaged the attention 
of, and been edited from different texts by, nearly every great 
Celtic scholar of this century.3 Yet I luckily discovered last 

1 In the older form Leborcham. She is generally described as Conor's 
messenger ; in one place she is called his bean-cainte or "talking-woman " ; 
this is the only passage I know of in which she is credited with any higher 
powers. She is said elsewhere to have been the daughter of two slaves of 
Conor's household, Oa or Aue and Adarc. 

2 Yet when in Trinity College Dublin, a few years ago, the subject — the 
first Irish subject for twenty-seven years — set for the Vice-Chancellor's 
Prize in English verse was "Deirdre," it was found that the students did 
not know what that word meant, or what Deirdre was, whether animal, 
vegetable, or mineral. So true it is that, despite all the efforts of Davis 
and his fellows, there arc yet two nations in Ireland. Trinity College 
might to some extent bridge the gap if she would, but she has carefully 
refrained from attempting it. 

3 O'Flanagan first printed two versions of it in the solitary volume 
which comprises the " Transactions of the Gaelic Society," as early as 



304 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

year in the museum in Belfast by far the amplest and most 
graphic version of them all, bound up with some other pieces 
of different dates. It was copied at the end of the last or the 
beginning of the present century by a northern scribe, from 
a copy which must have been fairly old to judge from the 
language and from the glosses in the margin. I give here a 
literal translation of the opening of the story from this manu- 
script, and it is an admirable example of the later extension and 
embellishment of the ancient texts. 

THE OPENING OF THE FATE OF THE SONS OF USNACH, 
FROM A MS. IN THE BELFAST MUSEUM. 

" Once upon a time Conor, son of Fachtna, and the nobles of the 
Red Branch, went to a feast to the house of Feidhlim, the son of 



1808. The older of these two versions agrees closely with that contained 
in " Egerton, 1782," of the British Museum, but neither of the MSS. which 
he used is now known to exist. Eugene O' Curry edited the story from 
the text in the Yellow Book of Lecan, with a translation in the "Atlantis," 
a long defunct Irish periodical. Windisch edited the oldest existing 
version, that of the Book of Leinster, in the first volume of " Irische Texte." 
None of these three versions differ appreciably. In the second volume of 
the same, Dr. Whitley Stokes edited a consecutive text from 56 and 53 
of the MSS. in the Advocates' Library at Edinburgh, the latter of which is 
a vellum of the fifteenth century. Finally, the text of both these MSS. 
was published in full in vol. ii. of Dr. Cameron's " Reliquiae Celticoe," 
where he also gives a translation of the first. Keating, too, in his history, 
retells the story at considerable length. Windisch's, O'Curry's, and 
O'Flanagan's texts were reprinted in 1883 in the " Gaelic Journal." In 
addition to all these Mr. Carmichael published in Gaelic in 1887 an 
admirable folk-lore version of the story from the Isles of Scotland in the 
thirteenth volume of the " Transactions of the Inverness Gaelic Society," 
and the tale is retold in English, chiefly from this version, by Mr. Jacobs 
in the first series of his " Celtic Fairy Tales." M. d'Arbois de Jubainvillc 
has given a French translation of the entire story from the Book of 
Leinster, the older Edinburgh MS., and the Highland Folktale, the latter 
two being translated by M. Georges Dottin. Macpherson made this story 
the foundation of his " Darthula." Dr. Dwyer Joyce published the story in 
America as an English poem. Sir Samuel Ferguson, Dr. Todhunter, and 
the present writer have all published adaptations of it in English verse, 
and Mr. Rolleston made it the subject of the Prize Cantata at the Feis 
Ceoil in Dublin in 1807. Hence I may print here this new and full open- 
ing of a piece so celebrated. For text sec Zcit. f. Celt. Phil. II. 1, p. 142. 



DEIRDRE 305 

Doll, the king's principal story-teller ; and the King and people were 
merry and light hearted, eating that feast in the house of the prin- 
cipal story-teller, with gentle music of the musicians, and with the 
melody of the voices of the bards and the ollavs, with the delight of 
the speech and ancient tales of the sages, and of those who read the 
keenes (?) (written on) flags and books ; (listening) to the prognosti- 
cations of the druids and of those who numbered the moon and 
stars. And at the time when the assembly were merry and pleasant 
in general it chanced that Feidhlim's wife bore a beautiful, well- 
shaped daughter, during the feast. Up rises expeditiously the gentle 
Cathfaidh, the Head-druid of Erin, who chanced to be present in the 
assembly at that time, and a bundle of his ancient . . . ? fairy books 
in his left hand with him, and out he goes on the border of the rath 
to minutely observe and closely scrutinise the clouds of the air, the 
position of the stars and the age of the moon, to gain a prognos- 
tication and a knowledge of the fate that was in store for the child 
who was born there. Cathfaidh then returns quickly to all in 
presence of the King and told them an omen and prophecy, that 
many hurts and losses should come to the province of Ulster on 
account of the girl that was born there. On the nobles of Ulster 
receiving this prophecy they resolved on the plan of destroying the 
infant, and the heroes of the Red Branch bade slay her without 
delay. 

" ' Let it not be so done,' says the King ; * it is not laudable to fight 
against fate, and woe to him who would destroy an innocent infant, 
for agreeable is the appearance and the laugh of the child ; alas ! it 
were a pity to quench her (life). Observe, O ye Nobles of Ulster, 
and listen to me, O ye valiant heroes of the Red Branch, and under- 
stand that I still submit to the omen of the prophecies and fore- 
tellings of the seers, but yet I do not submit to, nor do I praise, the 
committing of a base deed, or a deed of treachery, in the hope of 
quenching the anger of the power of the elements. If it be a fate 
which it is not possible to avoid, give ye, each of you, death to 
himself, but do not shed the blood of the innocent infant, for it were 
not (our) due (to have) prosperity thereafter. I proclaim to you, 
moreover, O ye nobles of Emania, that I take the girl under my 
own protection from henceforth, and if I and she live and last, it 
may be that I shall have her as my one-wife and gentle consort. 
Therefore, I assure the men of Erin by the securities of the moon 
and sun, that any one who would venture to destroy her either now 
or again, shall neither live nor last, if I survive her.' 

" The nobles of Ulster, and every one in general listened silent and 
mute, until Conall Cearnach, Fergus mac Roigh, and the heroes of 
the Red Branch rose up together, and 'twas what they said, 'O High- 

u 



jo6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

king of Ulster, right is thy judgment, and it is (our) due to observe 
it, and let it be thy will that is done.' 

"As for the girl, Conor took her under his own protection, and 
placed her in a moat apart, to be brought up by his nurse, whose 
name was Lavarcam, in a fortress of the Red Branch, and Conor 
and Cathfaidh the druid gave her the name of Deirdre. Afterwards 
Deirdre was being generously nurtured under Lavarcam and (other) 
ladies, perfecting her in every science that was fitting for the 
daughter of a high prince, until she grew up a blossom-bearing 
sapling, and until her beauty was beyond every degree surpassing. 
Moreover, she was nurtured with excessive luxury of meat and drink 
that her stature and ripeness might be the greater for it, and that 
she might be the sooner marriageable. This is how Deirdre's abode 
was (situated, namely) in a fortress of the Branch, according to the 
King's command, every (aperture for) light closed in the front of the 
dun, and the windows of the back (ordered) to be open. A beautiful 
orchard full of fruit (lay) at the back of the fort, in which Deirdre 
might be walking for a while under the eye of her tutor at the 
beginning and the end of the day ; under the shade of the fresh 
boughs and branches, and by the side of a running, meandering 
stream that was winding softly through the middle of the walled 
garden. A high, tremendous difficult wall, not easy to surmount, 
(was) surrounding that spacious habitation, and four savage man- 
hounds (sent) from Conor (were) on constant guard there, and his 
life were in peril for the man who would venture to approach it. 
For it was not permitted to any male to come next nor near Deirdre, 
nor even to look at her, but (only) to her tutor, whose name was 
Cailcin, and to King Conor himself. Prosperous was Conor's sway, 
and valiant was the fame (i.e., famous was the valour) of the Red 
Branch, defending the province of Ulster against foreigners and 
against every other province in Erin in his time, and there were no 
three in the household of Emania or throughout all Banba [Ireland] 
more brilliant than the sons of Uisneach, nor heroes of higher fame 
than they, Naoise [Neesha], Ainle, and Ardan. 

" As for Deirdre, when she was fourteen years of age she was 
found marriageable and Conor designed to take her to his own royal 
couch. About this time a sadness and a heavy flood of melancholy 
lay upon the young queen, without gentle sleep, without sufficient 
food, without sprightliness — as had been her wont. 

" Until it chanced of a day, while snow lay (on the ground), 
in the winter, that Cailcin, Deirdre's tutor, went to kill a 
calf to get ready food for her, and after shedding the blood of 
the calf out upon the snow, a raven stoops upon it to drink it, and 
as Deirdre perceives that, and she watching through a window of 



DEIRDRE 307 

the fortress, she heaved a heavy sigh so that Cailcin heard her. 
' Wherefore thy melancholy, girl ? ' said he. ' Alas that I have not 
yon thing as I see it,' said she. 'Thou shalt have that if it be 
possible,' said he, drawing his hand dexterously so that he gave an 
unerring cast of his knife at the raven, so that he cut one foot off it. 
And after that he takes up the bird and throws it over near Deirdre. 
The girl starts at once, and fell into a faint, until Lavarcam came up 
to help her. ' Why art thou as I see thee, dear girl,' said she, ' for 
thy countenance is pitiable ever since yesterday ? ' 'A desire that 
came to me,' said Deirdre. ' What is that desire ? ' said Lavarcam. 
'Three colours that I saw,' said Deirdre, 'namely, the blackness of 
the raven, the redness of the blood, and the whiteness of the snow.' 
'It is easy to get that for thee now,' said Lavarcam, and arose (and 
went) out without delay, and she gathered the full of a vessel of 
snow, and half the full of a cup of the calf's blood, and she pulls 
three feathers out of the wing of the raven. And she laid them 
down on the table before the girl. Deirdre began as though she 
were eating the snow and lazily tasting the blood with the top of the 
raven's feather, and her nurse closely scrutinising her, until Deirdre 
asked Lavarcam to leave her alone by herself for a while. Lavarcam 
departs, and again returns, and this is how she found Deirdre — 
shaping a ball of snow in the likeness of a man's head and mottling 
it with the top of the raven's feather out of the blood of the calf, 
and putting the small black plumage as hair upon it, and she never 
perceived her nurse examining her until she had finished. ' Whose 
likeness is that ? ' said Lavarcam. Deirdre starts and she said, ' It is 
a work easily destroyed.' ' That work is a great wonder to me, girl,' 
said Lavarcam, ' because it was not thy wont to draw pictures of a 
man, (and) it was not permitted to the women of Emania to teach 
thee any similitude but that of Conor only.' ' I saw a face in my 
dream,' said Deirdre, 'that was of brighter countenance than the 
King's face, or Cailcin's, and it was in it that I saw the three colours 
that pained me, namely, the whiteness of the snow on his skin, the 
blackness of the raven on his hair, and the redness of the blood 
upon his countenance, and oh woe ! my life will not last, unless I 
get my desire.' 'Alas for thy desire, my darling,' said Lavarcam. 
f My desire, O gentle nurse,' said Deirdre. ' Alas ! 'tis a pity thy 
desire, it is difficult to get it,' said Lavarcam, 'for fast and close is 
the fortress of the Branch, and high and difficult is the enclosure 
round about, and [there is] the sharp watch of the fierce man- 
bounds in it.' 'The hounds are no danger to us,' said Deirdre. 

Where did you behold that face?' said Lavarcam. ' In a dream 
yesterday,' said Deirdre, and she weeping, after hiding her face in 

ler nurse's bosom, and shedding tears plentifully. ' Rise up from 



3o8 LITERARY ///STORY OF IRELAND 

me, dear pupil,' said Lavarcam, 'and restrain thy tears henceforth 
till thou eatest food and takest a drink, and after Cailcin's eating his 
meal we shall talk together about the dream.' Her nurse raises 
Deirdre's head, ' Take courage, daughter,' said she, 'and be patient, \ 
for I am certain that thou shalt get thy desire, for according to 
human age and life, Conor's time beside thee is not (to be) long or 
lasting.' 

" After Lavarcam's departing from her, she [Lavarcam] perceived 
a green mantle hung in the front of a closed-up window on the ; 
head of a brass club and the point of a spear thrust through the 
wall of the mansion. Lavarcam puts her hand to it so that it readily 
came away with her, and stones and moss fell down after it, so that 
the light of day, and the grassy lawn, and the Champion's Plain in 
front of the mansion, and the heroes at their feats of activity became 
visible. ' I understand, now, my pupil,' said Lavarcam, ' that it was i 
here you saw that dream.' But Deirdre did not answer her. Her 
nurse left food and ale on the table before Deirdre, and departed 
from her without speaking, for the boring-through of the window 
did not please Lavarcam, for fear of Conor or of Cailcin coming to 
the knowledge of it. As for Deirdre, she ate not her food, but she 
quenched her thirst out of a goblet of ale, and she takes with her 
the flesh of the calf, after covering it under a corner of her mantle, 
and she went to her tutor and asks leave of him to go out for a while < 
(and walk) at the back of the mansion. ' The day is cold, and there j 
is snow darkening in (the air) daughter,' said Cailcin, ' but you can \ 
walk for a while under the shelter of the walls of the mansion, but 
mind the house of the hounds.' 

" Deirdre went out, and no stop was made by her until she passed 
down through the middle of the snow to where the den of the man- B 
hounds was, and as soon as the hounds recognised her and the smell 
of the meat they did not touch her, and they made no barking till 
she divided her food amongst them, and she retu r ns into the house ' 
afterwards. Thereupon came Lavarcam, and found Deirdre lying 
upon one side of her couch, and she sighing heavily and shedding . 
tears. Her nurse stood silent for a while observing her, till her heart 
was softened to compassion and her anger departed from her. She 
stretched out her hand, and 'twas what she said, ' Rise up, modest 
daughter, that we may be talking about the dream, and tell me did 
you ever see that black hero before yesterday ? ' ' White hero, gentle 
nurse, hero of the pleasant crimson cheeks,' said Deirdre. 'Tell , 
me without falsehood,' said Lavarcam, ' did you ever see that warrior 
before yesterday, or before you bored through the window-work 
with the head of a spear and with a brass club, and till you looked j 
out through it on the warriors of the Branch when they were at | 



. DEIRDRE 309 

their feats of activity on the Champion Plain, and till you saw all the 
dreams you spoke of ? ' Deirdre hides her head in her nurse's 
bosom, weeping, till she said, ' Oh, gentle mother and nurturer of 
my heart, do not tell that to my tutor ; and I shall not conceal from 
thee that I saw him on the lawn of Emania, playing games with the 
boys, and learning feats of valour, and och ! he had the beautiful 
countenance at that time, and very lovely was it yesterday (too).' 
■ Daughter,' said Lavarcam, ' you did not see the boys on the green 
of Emania from the time you were seven years of age, and that is 
seven years ago.' ' Seven bitter years,' said Deirdre, ' since I beheld 
the delight of the green and the playing of the boys, and surely, too, 
Naoise surpassed all the youths of Emania.' ' Naoise, the son of 
Uisneach ? ' said Lavarcam. ' Naoise is his name, as he told me,' said 
Deirdre, ' but I did not ask whose son he was.' ' As he told you ! ' said 
Lavarcam. ' As he told me,' said Deirdre, ' when he made a throw of 
a ball, by a miss-cast, backwards transversely over the heads of the 
band of maidens that were standing on the edge of the green, and 
I rose from amongst them all, till I lifted the ball, and I delivered 
it to him, and he pressed my hand joyously.' ' He pressed your hand, 
girl ! ' said Lavarcam. ' He pressed it lovingly, and said that he 
would see me again, but it was difficult for him, and I did not see 
him since until yesterday, and oh, gentle nurse, if you wish me to 
be alive take a message to him from me, and tell him to come to 
visit me and talk with me secretly to-night without the knowledge 
of Cailcin or any other person.' ' Oh, girl,' said Lavarcam, ' it is a 
very dangerous attempt to gain the quenching of thy desire [being 
in peril] from the anger of the King, and under the sharp watch of 
Cailcin, considering the fierceness of the savage man-hounds, and 
considering the difficulty of (scaling) the enclosure round about.' 
'The hounds are no danger to us,' said Deirdre. ' Then, too,' said 
Lavarcam, ' great is Conor's love for the children of Uisneach, and 
there is not in the Red Branch a hero dearer to him than Naoise.' 
' If he be the son of Uisneach,' said Deirdre, ' 1 heard the report of 
him from the women of Emania, and that great are his own terri- 
tories in the West of Alba, outside of Conor's sway, and, gentle 
nurse, go to find Naoise, and you can tell him how I am, and how 
much greater my love for him is than for Conor.' ' Tell him that 
yourself if you can,' said Lavarcam, and she went out thereupon to 
seek Naoise till he was found, and till he came with her to Deirdre's 
dwelling in the beginning of the night, without Cailcin's knowledge. 
^ When Naoise beheld the splendour of the girl's countenance he is 
filled with a flood of love, and Deirdre beseeches him to lake her and 
escape to Alba. But Naoise thought that too hazardous, for fear of 
Conor. But in the course (?) of the night Deirdre won him over, so 



310 LITERARY I //STORY OF IRELAND 

that he consented to her, and they determined lo depart on the night 
of the morrow. 

" Deirdre escaped in the middle of the night without the know- 
ledge of her tutor or her nurse, for Naoise came at that time and his 
two brothers along with him, so that he bored a gap at the back of 
the hounds' den, for the dogs were dead already through poison from 
Deirdre. 

" They lifted the girl over the walls, through every rough impedi- 
ment, so that her mantle and the extremity of her dress were all 
tattered, and he set her upon the back of a steed, and no stop was 
made by them till (they reached) Sliabh Fuaid and Finn-charn of 
the watch, till they came to the harbour and went aboard a ship and 
were driven by a south wind across the ocean-waters and over the 
back-ridges of the deep sea to Loch n-Eathaigh in the west of 
Alba, and thrice fifty valiant champions [sailed] along with them, 
namely, fifty with each of the three brothers, Naoise, Ainle, and 
Ardan." 

The three brothers and Deirdre lived for a long time happily 
in Scotland and rose to great favour and power with the King, 
until he discovered the existence of the beautiful Deirdre, 
whom they had carefully kept concealed lest he should desire 
her for his wife. This discovery drives them forth again, and 
they live by hunting in the highlands and islands. 

It is only at this point that most of the modern copies, such 
as that published by O'Flanagan in 1808, begin, namely, 
with a feast of King Conor's, in which he asks his household 
and all the warriors of Ulster who are present, whether they 
are aware of anything lacking to his palace in Emania. They 
all reply that to them it seems perfect. " Not so to me," 
answers Conor, " I know of a great want which presseth upon 
you, namely, three renowned youths, the three luminaries of 
the valour of the Gaels, the three beautiful, noble sons of 
Usnach, to be wanting to you on account of any woman in 
the world." " Dared we say that," said they, " long since 
would we have said it." 

Conor thereupon proposes to send ambassadors to them to 
solicit their return. He takes Conall Cearnach apart and asks 
him if he will go, and what would he do should the sons of 



DEIRDRE 311 

Usnach be slain while under his protection. Conall answers 
that he would slay without mercy any Ultonian who dared to 
touch one of them. So does Cuchulain. Fergus mac Roigh 
alone promises not to injure the King himself should he touch 
them, but any other Ultonian who should wrong them must 
die. Fergus and his two sons sailed to Alba, commissioned to 
proclaim peace to the sons of Usnach and bring them home. 
Having landed, Fergus gives forth the cry of a " mighty man 
of chace." Naoise and Deirdre were sitting together in their 
hunting booth playing at chess. Naoise heard the cry and said, 
"I hear the call of a man of Erin." "That was not the call 
of a man of Erin," said Deirdre, " but the call of a man of 
Alba." Twice again did Fergus shout, and twice did Deirdre 
insist that it was not the cry of a man of Erin. At last Naoise 
recognises the voice of Fergus, and sends his brother to meet 
him. Then Deirdre confesses that she had recognised the call 
of Fergus from the beginning. " Why didst thou conceal it 
then, my queen ? " said Naoise. " A vision I had last night," 
said Deirdre, " for three birds came to us from Emania having 
three sups of honey in their beaks, and they left them with 
us, but they took with them three sups of our blood." " And 
how readest thou that, my queen," said Naoise. " It is," said 
Deirdre, " the coming of Fergus to us with a peaceful message 
from Conor, for honey is not more sweet than the peaceful 
message of the false man." 

But all is of no avail. Fergus and his sons arrive and spend the 
night with the children of Usnach, and despite of all that Deirdre 
can do, she sees them slowly win her husband round to their 
side, and inspire him with a desire to return once more to Erin. 

Next morning they embark. Deirdre weeps and utters 
lamentations ; she sings her bitter regret at leaving the scenes 
where she had been so happy. 

"Delightful land," she sang, "yon eastern hind, Alba, with ils 
wonders. I had never come hither out of it had I not come with 
Naoise. , . . 



312 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

" The Vale of Laidh, Oh in the Vale of Laidh, I used to sleep 
under soft coverlet : fish and venison and the fat of the badger were 
my repast in the Vale of Laidh. 

"The Vale of Masan, oh the Vale of Masan, high its harts-tongue, 
fair its stalks, we used to enjoy a rocking sleep above the grassy 
verge of Masan.' 

" The vale of Eiti, oh the vale of Eiti ! In it I raised my first 
house, lovely was its wood (when seen) on rising, the milking-house 
of the sun was the vale of Eiti. 

" Glendarua, oh Glendarua ! my love to every one who enjoys it ; 
sweet the voice of the cuckoo upon bending bough upon the cliff 
above Glendarua. 

" Dear is Droighin over the strong shore. Dear are its waters 
over pure sand ; I would never have come from it had I not come 
with my love." 

She ceased to sing, the vessel approached the shore, and the 
fugitives are landed once more in Erin. But dangers thicken 
round them. Through a strategy of King Conor's Fergus is 
placed under geasa or tabu by a man called Barach to stay 
and partake of a feast with him, and thus detached from the 
sons of Usnach, who are left alone with his two sons instead. 
Then Deirdre again uses all her influence with her husband 
and his brothers to sail to Rathlin and wait there until they 
can be rejoined by Fergus, but she does not prevail. After 
that she has a terrifying dream, and tells it to them, but 
Naoise answered lightly in verse — 

" Thy mouth pronounceth not but evil, 
O maiden, beautiful, incomparable ; 
The venom of thy delicate ruby mouth 
Fall on the hateful furious foreigners." 

Thereafter, as they advanced farther upon their way towards 
King Conor's palace at Emania, the omens of evil grow 



1 " Gleann Masain, on Gleann Masain, 
Ard a chneamn, £eal a ghasain, 
Do ghnidhmis codladh eorrach 
Os inbhear mongach Masain." 



DEIRDRE 313 

thicker still, and all Deirdre's terrors are re-awakened by the 
rising of a blood-red cloud. 

" ' O Naoise, view the cloud 
That I see here on the sky, 
I see over Emania green 
A chilling cloud of blood-tinged red. 

I have caught alarm from the cloud 
I see here in the sky, 
It is like a gore-clot of blood, 
The cloud terrific very-thin.' " 

And she urged them to turn aside to Cuchulain's palace at 
Dundalgan, and remain under that hero's safeguard till Fergus 
could rejoin them. But she cannot persuade the others that 
the treachery which she herself sees so clearly is really intended. 
Her last despairing attempt is made as they come in sight of 
the royal city ; she tells them that if, when they arrrive, they 
are admitted into the mansion in which King Conor is 
feasting with the nobles of Ulster round him, they are safe, but 
if they are on any pretext quartered by the King in the 
House of the Red Branch, they may be certain of treachery. 
They are sent to the House of the Red Branch, and not 
admitted among the King's revellers, on the pretended grounds 
that the Red Branch is better prepared for strangers, and that 
its larder and its cellar are better provided with food and drink 
than the King's mansion. All now begin to feel that the net 
is closing over them. Late in the night King Conor, fired 
with drink and jealousy, called for some one to go for him and 
bring him word how Deirdre looked, " for if her own form live 
upon her, there is not in the world a woman more beautiful 
than she." Lavarcam, the nurse, undertakes to go. She, of 
course, discloses to Deirdre and Naoise the treachery that is 
being plotted against them, and returning to Conor she tells 
him that Deirdre has wholly lost her beauty, whereat, " much 
of his jealousy abated, and lie continued to indulge in feasting 
and enjoyment a loner while, until he thought of Deirdre a 



314 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

second time." This time he docs not trust Lavarcam, but 
sends one of his retainers, first reminding him that his 
father and his three brothers had been slain by Naoise. But 
in the mean time the entrances and windows of the Red 
Branch had been shut and barred and the doors barricaded by 
the sons of Usnach. One small window, however, had been 
left open at the back and the spy climbed upon a ladder and 
looked through it and saw Naoise and Deirdre sitting together 
and playing at chess. Deirdre called Naoise's attention to the 
face looking at them, and Naoise, who was lifting a chessman 
off the board, hurled it at the head and broke the eye that 
looked at them. The man ran back and told the King that 
it was worth losing an eye to have beheld a woman so lovely. 
Then Conor, fired with fury and jealousy, led his troops to the 
assault, and all night long there is fighting and shouting round 
the Red Branch House, and Naoise's brothers, helped by the 
two sons of Fergus, pass the night in repelling attack, and in 
quenching the fires that break out all round the house. At 
length one of Fergus's sons is slain and the other is bought off 
by a bribe of land and a promise of power from King Conor, 
and now the morning begins to dawn, but the sons of Usnach 
are still living, and Deirdre is still untaken. At last Conor's 
druid, Cathba, consents to work a spell against them ii 
Conor will plight his faithful word that having once taken 
Deirdre he will not touch or harm the sons of Usnach. Conor 
plights his word and troth, and the spell is set at work. The 
sons of Usnach had left the half-burnt house and were 
escaping in the morning light with Deirdre between them 
when they met, as they thought, a sea of thick viscid waves, 
and they cast down their weapons and spread abroad their arms 
and tried to swim, and Conor's soldiers came and took them 
without a blow. They were brought to Conor and he caused 
them to be at once beheaded. It was then the druid cursed 
E mania, for Conor had broken his plighted word, and that 
curse was fulfilled in the misery that fell upon the province 



DEIRDRE 315 

during the wars with Meve. He cursed also the house of 
Conor, and prophesied that none of his descendants should 
possess Emania for ever, "and that," adds the saga, "has been 
verified, for neither Conor nor any of his race possessed Emania 
from that time to this." J 

As for Deirdre, she was as one distracted ; she fell upon the 
ground and drank their blood, she tore her hair and rent her 
dishevelled tresses, and the lament she broke forth into has long 
been a favourite of Irish scribes. She calls aloud upon the 
dead, " the three falcons of the mount of Culan, the three 
lions of wood of the cave, the three sons of the breast of the 
Ultonians, the three props of the battalion of Chuailgne, the 
three dragons of the fort of Monadh." 

" The High King of Ulster, my first husband, 
I forsook him for the love of Naoise. 

.... o 

That I shall live after Naoise 
Let no man on earth imagine. 



Their three shields and their three spears 
Have often been mv bed. 



I never was one day alone 

Until the day of the making of the grave, 

Although both I and ye 

Were often in solitude. 

My sight has gone from me 
At seeing the grave of Naoise." 



1 We have seen that none of the race of Ir claim descent from Conor ; 
all their great families O'Mores, O'Farrells, etc., descend from Fergus mac 
Roigh [Roy] or Conall Cearnach (sec p. 69 note) ; yet Conor had twenty- 
one sons, all of whom, says Keating, died without issue except three — 
" Benna, from whom descended the Benntraidhe ; Lamha, from whom 
came the Lamhraidhe ; and Glasni, whose descendants were the Glas- 
naide ; but even of these," adds Keating, " there is not at this day a single 
descendant alive in Ireland.'' See O'Mahony's translation, p. 278. 



3i6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

She remembers now in her own agony another woman who 
would lament with her could she but know that Naoise had 
died. 

" On a day thai the nobles of Alba [Scotland] were feasting, 
And the sons of Usnach, deserving of love, 
To the daughter of the lord of Duntrone 
Naoise gave a secret kiss. 

He sent to her a frisking doe, 

A deer of the forest with a fawn at its foot, 

And he went aside to her on a visit 

While returning from the host of Inverness. 

But when I heard that 

My head filled full of jealousy, 

I launched my little skiff upon the waves, 

I did not care whether I died or lived. 

They followed me, swimming, 

Ainnle and Ardan, who never uttered falsehood, 

And they turned me in to land again, 

Two who would subdue a hundred. 

Naoise pledged me his word of truth, 
And he swore in presence of his weapons three times, 
That he would never cloud my countenance again 
Till he should go from me to the army of the dead. 

Alas ! if she were to hear this night 
That Naoise was under cover in the clay, 
She would weep most certainly, 
And I, I would weep with her sevenfold." * 

After her lay of lamentation she falls into the grave where the 
three are being buried, and dies above them. "Their flag 
was raised over their tomb, and their names were written in 
Ogam, and their funeral games were celebrated. Thus far 
the tragedy of the sons of Usnach." 

The oldest and briefest version of this fine saga, that pre- 
served in the Book of Leinster, ends differently, and even more 

1 " Och ! da gcluinfeadh sise anocht 
Naoise bheith fa bhrat i gcre, 
Do ghoilfeadh sise go beacht, 
Acht do ijhoilfinn-se fa seacht le." 



DEIRDRE 317 

tragically. On the death of Naoise, who is slain the moment 
he appears on the lawn of Emania, Deirdre is taken, her 
hands are bound behind her back and she is given over to 
Conor. 

" Deirdre was for a year in Conor's couch, and during that year 
she neither smiled nor laughed nor took sufficiency of food, drink, 
or sleep, nor did she raise her head from her knee. When they 
used to bring the musicians to her house she would utter rhapsody — 

" ' Lament ye the mighty warriors 

Assassinated in Emania on coming,' etc. 

When Conor would be endeavouring to sooth her, it was then she 
vvoyld utter this dirge — 

" ' That which was most beauteous to me beneath the sky, 
And which was most lovely to me, 
Thou hast taken from me — great the anguish — 
I shall not get healed of it to my death,' etc. 

" ' What is it you see that you hate most ? ' said Conor. 

" ' Thou thyself and Eoghan [Owen] son of Duthrecht,' r said she. 

" ' Thou shalt be a year in Owen's couch then,' said Conor. Conor 
then gave her over to Owen. 

"They drove the next day to the assembly at Muirtheimhne. She 
was behind Owen in a chariot. She looked towards the earth that 
she might not see her two gallants. 

" ' Well, Deirdre,' said Conor, ' it is the glance of a ewe between 
two rams you cast between me and Owen.' 

" There was a large rock near. She hurled her head at the stone, 
so that she broke her skull and was dead. 

" This is the exile of the sons of Usnach and the cause of the exile 
of Fergus and of the death of Deirdre." 



to 1 



It was in consequence of Conor's treachery in slaying the 
sons of Usnach while under Fergus's protection .that this 
warrior turned against his king, burnt Emania, and then seceded 
into Connacht to Oilioll [Ulyul] and Meve, king and queen 
of that province, where he took service with about fifteen 
hundred Ultonians who, indignant at Conor, seceded along with 
him. " It was he," says Keating, summing up the substance or 

1 Who had slain Naoise at Conor's bidding, in the older version. 



31S LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

the sagas, u who carried off" the great spoils from Ulster whence 
came so many wars and enmities between the people of Con- 
nacht and Ulster, so that the exiles who went from Ulster 
into banishment with Fergus continued seven, or as some say, 
ten years in Connacht, during which time they kept constantly 
spoiling, destroying and plundering the Ultonians, on account 
of the murder of the sons of Usnach. And the Ultonians in 
like manner wreaked vengeance upon them, and upon the 
people of Connacht, and made reprisals for the booty which 
Fergus had carried off, and for every other evil inflicted upon 
them by the exiles and by the Connacht men, insomuch that 
the losses and injuries sustained on both sides were so numerous 
that whole volumes have been written upon them, which 
would be too long to mention or take notice of at present." 

It was with the assistance of Fergus and the other exiles 
that Meve undertook her famous expedition into Ulster, of 
which we must now speak. 



CHAPTER XXVI 



THE TAIN BO CHUAILGNE 



The greatest of the heroic sagas and the longest is that which 
is called the Tain Bo Chuailgne, 1 or "Cattle-Raid of Cooley," 
a district of Ulster contained in the present county of Louth, 
into which Oilioll and Meadhbh [Meve], the king and queen of 
Connacht, led an enormous army composed of men from the 
four other provinces, to carry off the celebrated Dun Bull of 
Cooley. 

Although there is a great deal of verbiage and piling-up of 
rather barren names in this piece, nevertheless there are also 
several finely conceived and well-executed incidents. The 
saga which, according to Zimmer, was probably first committed 
to writing in the seventh or eighth century, is partially pre- 
served in the Leabhar na h-Uidhre, a manuscript made about 
the year noo, and there is a complete copy of it in the Book 
of Leinster made about fifty years later. I have chiefly trans- 
lated from a more modern text in my own possession, which 
differs very slightly from the ancient ones. 

The story opens with a conversation between Meve, queen 

of Connacht, and Oilioll her husband, which ends in a dispute 

as to which of them is the richest. There was no modern 

Married Women's Property Act in force, but Irish ladies 

1 Pronounced "Taun Bo Hooiln'ya." 



319 



320 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

seem to have been at all times much more sympathetically 
treated bv the Celtic tribes than by the harder and more stern 
races of Teutonic and Northern blood, and Irish damsels seem 
to have been free to enjoy their own property and dowries. 1 
The story, then, begins with this dispute as to which, husband 
or wife, is the richer in this world's goods, and the argument 
at last becomes so heated that the pair decide to have all their 
possessions brought together to compare them one with another 
and judge by actual observation which is the most valuable. 
They collected accordingly jewels, bracelets, metal, gold, silver, 
flocks, herds, ornaments, etc., and found that in point of wealth 
they were much the same, but that there was one great bull called 
Finn-bheannach or White-horned, who was really calved by one 
of Meve's cows, but being endowed with a certain amount of 
intelligence considered it disgraceful to be under a woman, and 
so had gone over to Oilioll's herds. With him Meve had 
nothing that could compare. She made inquiry, however, and 
found out from her chief courier that there was in the district 
of Cuailgne in Louth (Meve lived at Rathcroghan in Ros- 
common) a most celebrated bull called the Dun Bull of Cuailgne 
belonging to a chieftain of the name of Dare. To him 
accordingly she sends an embassy requesting the loan of the 
bull for one year, and promising fifty heifers in return. Dare 
was quite willing, and promised to lend the animal. He was 
in fact pleased, and treated the embassy generously, giving them 
good lodgings with plenty of food and drink — too much drink 
in fact. The fate of nations is said to often hang upon a 
thread. On this occasion that of Ulster and Connacht de- 
pended upon a drop more or less, absorbed by one of the ten 
men who constituted Meve's embassy. This man un- 
fortunately passed the just limit, and Dare's steward coming in 
at the moment heard him say that it was small thanks to his 

1 Yet in the Brehon law a woman is valued at only the seventh part 
of a man, three cows instead of twenty-one ; but if she is young and hand- 
some she has her additional " honour price." 



THE TAIN BO CHUAILGNE 321 

master to give his bull " for if he hadn't given it we'd have 
taken it." That word decided the fate of provinces. The 
steward, indignant at such an outrage, ran and told his master, 
and Dare swore that now he would lend no bull, and what 
was more, but that the ten men were envoys he swore he 
would hang them. With indignity they were dismissed, and 
returned empty-handed to Meve's boundless indignation. She 
in her turn swore she would have the bull in spite of Dare. 
She immediately sent out to collect her armies, and invited 
Leinster and Munster to join her. She was in fact able 
to muster most of the three provinces to march against 
Ulster to take the bull from Dare, and in addition she had 
Fergus mac Roy and about fifteen hundred Ulster warriors 
who had never returned to their homes nor forgiven Conor for 
the murder of the sons of Usnach. She crossed the Shannon 
at Athlone, and marched on to Kells, within a few miles of 
Ulster, and there she pitched her standing camp. She was 
accompanied by her husband and her daughter who was the 
fairest among women. Her mother had secretly promised her 
hand to every leader in her army in order to nerve them to do 
their utmost. 

At the very beginning Meve is forewarned by a mysterious 
female of the slaughter which is to come. She had driven 
round in her chariot to visit her druid and to inquire of him 
what would come of her expedition, and is returning somewhat 
reassured in her mind by the druid's promise which was — 

" 'Whosoever returneth or returneth not, thou shalt return,' and," 
says the saga, " as Meve returned again upon her track she beheld a 
thing which caused her to wonder, a single woman (riding) beside 
her, upon the pole of her chariot. And this is how that maiden was. 
She was weaving a border with a sword of bright bronze I in 
her right hand with its seven rings of red gold, and, about her, a 
spotted speckled mantle of green, and a fastening brooch in the 

1 " Findruini." See Book of Leinster, f. 42, for the old text of this, but 
I am here using a modern copy, not trusting myself to translate accurately 
from the old text. 



322 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

mantle over her bosom. A brigjit red gentle generous countenance, 
a grey eve visible in her he. id, a thin red mouth, young pearly teeth 
she had. You would think that her teeth were a shower of white 
pearls Bung into her head. Her mouth was like fresh coral? \_f>ar- 
taing]. The melodious address of her voice and her speaking tones 
were sweeter than the strings of curved harp being played. Brighter 
than the snow of one night was the splendour of her skin showing 
through her garments, her feet long, fairy-like, with (well) turned 
nails. Fair yellow hair very golden on her. Three tresses of her 
hair round her head, one tress behind falling after her to the extre 
mities of her ankles. 

" Meve looks at her. ' What makest thou there, O maiden ? ' said 
Aleve. 

" ' Foreseeing thy future for thee, and thy grief, thou who art 
gathering the four great provinces of Ireland with thee to the land of 
Ulster, to carry out the Tain Bo Chuailgne.' 

" ' And wherefore doest thou me this ? " said Meve. 

" ' Great reason have I for it,' said the maiden. ' A handmaid of 
thy people (am I),' said she. 

" ' Who of my people art thou ?' said Meve. 

" ' Feithlinn, fairy-prophetess of Rathcroghan, am I,' said she. 

" ' It is well, O Feithlinn, prophetess,' said Meve, ' and how scest 
thou our hosts ? ' 

" ' I see crimson over them, I see red,' said she. 

" ' Conor is in his sickness x in Emania,' said Meve, ' and messengers 
have reached me from him, and there is nothing that I dread from 
the Ultonians, but speak thou the truth, O Feithlinn, prophetess,' said 
Meve. 

" ' I see crimson, I see red,' said she. 

" ' Comhsgraidh Meann ... is in Innis Comhsgraidh in his sick- 
ness, and my messengers have reached me, and there is nothing that 
I fear from the Ultonians, but speak me truth, O Feithlinn, pro- 
phetess, how seest thou our host ? ' 

" ' I see crimson, I see red.' 

" ' Celtchar, son of Uitheachar, is in his sickness,' said Meve, 'and 
there is nothing I dread from the Ultonians, but speak truth, O 
Feithlinn, prophetess.' 

" ' I see crimson, I see red,' said she. 

"' . . . ?' said Meve, 'for since the men of Erin will be in one place 
there will be disputes and fightings and irruptions amongst them, 



1 This is the mysterious sickness which seizes upon all the Ultonians at 
intervals except Cuchulain. Sec p. 294, note 3. 



THE TAIN BO CHUAILGNE 323 

about reaching the beginnings or endings of fords or rivers, and 
about the first woundings of boars and stags, of venison, or matter of 
venery, speak true, O Feithlinn, prophetess, how seest thou our host ? 
said Meve. 
" ' I see crimson I see red,' said she." 

After this follows a long poem, wherein "she foretold 
Cuchulain to the men of Erin." 

The march of Meve's army is told with much apparent 
exactness. The names of fifty-nine places through which it 
passed are given ; and many incidents are recorded, one of 
which shows the furious, jealous, and vindictive disposition of 
the amazon queen herself. She, who seems to have taken upon 
herself the entire charge of the hosting, had made in her chariot 
the full round of the army at their encamping for the night, to 
see that everything was in order. After that she returned to 
her own tent and sat beside her husband Olioill at their meal, 
and he asks her how fared the troops. Meve then said something 
laudatory about the Gaileoin, 1 or ancient Leinstermen, who were 
not of Gaelic race, but appear to have belonged to some early 
non-Gaelic tribe, cognate with the Firbolg. 

" ' What excellence perform they beyond all others that they be 
thus praised ? ' said Oilioll. 

" ' They give cause for praise,' said Meve, ' for while others were 
choosing their camping-ground, they had made their booths and 
shelters ; and while others were making their booths and shelters, 
they had their feast of meat and ale laid out ; and while others were 
laying out their feasts of bread and ale, these had finished their food 
and fare ; and while others were finishing their food and fare, these 
were asleep. Even as their slaves and servants have excelled the 
slaves and servants of the men of Erin, so will their good heroes and 
youths excel the good heroes and youths of the men of Erin in this 
hosting.' 

" ' I am the better pleased at that,' said Oilioll, ' because it was 
with me they came, and they are my helpers.' 2 

1 For more about the Gaileoin sec p. 598 of Rhys's Hibbert Lectures, 
and O Curry, " M. and C," vol. ii. p. 260. 

2 They were countrymen of Oilioll's. 



324 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

" ' They shall not march with thee, then,' said Move, 'and it is not 
before me, nor to me, they shall be boasted of.' 

" ' Then let them remain in camp,' said Oilioll. 

"' They shall not do that either,' said Meve. 

'"What shall they do, then ?' said Findabar, daughter of Oilioll 
and Meve, 'if they shall neither march nor yet remain in camp.' 

" ' My will is to iniiict death and fate and destruction on them,' 
said Meve." 

It is with the greatest difficulty that Fergus is enabled to 
calm the furious queen, and she is only satisfied when the 
three thousand Gaileoins have been broken up and scattered 
throughout the other battalions, so that no five men of them 
remained together. 

Thereafter the army came to plains so thickly wooded, in 
the neighbourhood of the present Kells, that they were obliged 
to cut. down the wood with their swords to make a way for 
their chariots, and the next night they suffered intolerably 
from a fall of snow. 

" The snow that fell that night reached to men's legs and to the 
wheels of chariots, so that the snow made one plain of the five 
provinces of Erin, and the men of Ireland never suffered so much 
before in camp, none knew throughout the whole night whether it 
was his friend or his enemy who was next him, until the rise early 
on the morrow of the clear-shining sun, glancing on the snow that 
covered the country." 

They are now on the borders of Ulster, and Cuchulain is 
hovering on their flank, but no one has yet seen him. He 
lops a gnarled tree, writes an Ogam on it, sticks upon it the 
heads of three warriors he had slain, and sets it up on the brink 
of a ford. That night Oilioll and Meve inquire from the 
Ultonians who were in her army more particulars about this 
new enemy, and nearly a sixth part of the whole Tain is 
taken up by the stories which are then and there related 
about Cuchulain's earliest history and exploits, first by 
Fergus, and, when he is done relating, by Cormac Conlingeas, 



THE TAIN BO CHUAILGNE 325 

and when he has finished, by Fiacha, another Ultonian. 
This long digression, which is one of the most interesting 
parts of the whole saga, being over, we return to the direct 
story. 

Cuchulain, who knows every tree and every bush of the 
country, still hangs upon Meve's flank, and without showing 
himself during the day, he slays a hundred men with his sling x 
every night. 

Meve, through an envoy, asks for a meeting with him, and 
is astonished to find him, as she thinks, a mere boy. She offers 
him great rewards in the hope of buying him off, but he will 
have none of her gold. The only conditions upon which he 
will cease his night-slaying is if Meve will promise to let 
him fight with some warrior every day at the ford, and will 
promise to keep her army in its camp while these single 
combats last, and this Meve consents to, since she says it is 
better to lose one warrior every day than one hundred every 
night. 

A great number of single combats then take place, each of 
which is described at length. One curious incident is that 
of the war-goddess, whom he had previously offended, the 
Mor-rigu, 2 or " great queen," attacking him while fighting 
with the warrior Loich. She came against him, not in her 
own figure, but as a great black eel in the water, who wound 
itself around his legs, and as he stooped to disengage himself 
Loich wounded him severely in the breast. Again she came 
against him in the form of a great grey wolf-bitch, and as 
Cuchulain turned to drive her off he was again wounded. A 
third time she came against him as a heifer with fifty other 
heifers round her, but Cuchulain struck her and broke one of 
her eyes, just as Diomede in the Iliad wounds the goddess 

1 Crann-tabhail ; it is doubtful what kind of missile weapon this really 
was. It was certainly of the nature of a sling, but was partly composed 
of wood. 

2 Sec above, p. 54 and 291. Rigu is the old form of rioghdn. 



3 26 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Cypris when she appears against him. 1 Cuchulain, thus 
embarrassed, only rids himself of Loich by having recourse to 
the mysterious feat of the Gae-Bolg 3 about which we shall 
hear more later on. His opponent, feeling himself mortally 
hurt, cries out — 

" ' By thy love of generosity I crave a boon.' 

" ' What boon is that ? ' said Cuchulain. 

" * It is not to spare me I ask,' said Loich, ' but let me fall forwards 
to the east, and not backward to the west, that none of the men of 
Erin may say that I fell in panic or in flight before thee.' 

" ' I grant it,' said Cuchulain, ' for surely it is a warrior's request.' " 

After this encounter Cuchulain grew terribly despondent, 
and urged his charioteer Laeg again to hasten the men of 
Ulster to his assistance, but their pains were still upon them, 
and he is left alone to bear the brunt of the attack as best he 
may. Meve also breaks her compact by sending six men 
against him, but them he overcomes, and in revenge begins 
again to slay at night. 

Thereafter follows the episode known in Irish saga as the 
Great Breach of Moy Muirtheimhne. Cuchulain, driven to 
despair and enfeebled by wounds, fatigue, and watching, was 
in the act of ascending his chariot to advance alone against the 
men of the four provinces, moving to certain death, when the 

1 " 6 06 KvTTpLl' tTTOJXZTO Vi]\si %«X/C(p, 

Yiyvo)(Ti;wv or olvoKkiq h)v OeoQ, ovde Oedivv 
Tclojv ai r'dvdpisJv 7r6\e/xov Kara icoipavkovaiv, 
Our' dp' 'A9r]vah], ovrs TTToX'nropQoQ 'Evvio. 
'AXX ore Srj p' 'e/et';\;ai/e ttoXvv kclB' ofiiXov oird'CoJVf 
'Ei>9' tirop^ajXEvog., /xeyaOufjiov TvSkog vlbg 
"AKpt]v ovracre X^P a > f*£Td\f.iEvoc; b^'H dovpi 
' Afi\r]xpvv. elOap Se d6pv %pobq dvrerop^aev, 
'Afifipoaiov cid 7re7r\ov, uv ui XdpLrsg ku/jlov avrat, 
UpuiJ.7>i)v vTzip Q'tvapoq' pee b'dfii3poTov a'tfia Oeolo 
'i^oj/o, oioc 7TtjO re peei ftaicdpEcrm Oeolaiv." 

Iliad, v. 330. 

A better instance except for the sex is where he afterwards wounds 
Arcs. [See v. 855.) 



THE TAIN BO CHUAILGNE 327 

eye of his charioteer is arrested by the figure of a tall stranger 
moving through the camp of the enemy, saluting none as he 
moved, and by none saluted. 

" That man," said Cuchulain, " must be one of my super- 
natural friends of the shee x folk, and they salute him not 
because he is not seen." 

The stranger approaches, and, addressing Cuchulain, desires 
him to sleep for three days and three nights, and instantly 
Cuchulain fell asleep, for he had been from before the feast 
of Samhain till after Feil Bhrighde 2 without sleep, "unless 
it were that he might sleep a little while beside his spear, 
in the middle of the day, his head on his hand, and his hand 
on his spear, and his spear on his knee, but all the while 
slaughtering, slaying, preying on, and destroying, the four 
great provinces." 

It was after this long sleep of Cuchulain's that, awaking 
fresh and strong, the Berserk rage fell upon him. He hurled 
himself against the men of Erin, he drove round their flank, 
he " gave his chariot the heavy turn, so that the iron wheels 
of the chariot sank into the earth, so that the track of the 
iron wheels was (in itself) a sufficient fortification, for like a 
fortification the stones and pillars and flags and sands of the 
earth rose back high on every side round the wheels." All 
that day, refreshed by his three days' sleep, he slaughtered the 
men of Erin. 

Other single combats take place after this, in one of which 
the druid Cailitin and his twenty sons would have slain him 
had he not been rescued by his countryman Fiacha, one of 
those Ultonians who with Fergus had turned against their king 
and country when the children of Usnach were slain. 

It was only at the last that his own friend Ferdiad was 
despatched against him, through the wiles of Meve. Ferdiad 

1 In Irish, sidh. The stranger is really Cuchulain's divine father. 

2 This is incredible, for the sickness of the Ultonians could not have 
endured so lone. 



328 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

was not a Gael, but of the Firbolg or Firdomhnan race, 1 yet 
he proved very nearly a match for Cuchulain. Knowing what 
Meve wanted with him, he positively refused to come to her 
tent when sent for, and in the end he is only persuaded by her 
sending her druids and ollavs against him, who threatened 
" to criticise, satirise, and blemish him, so that they would 
raise three blisters 2 on his face unless he came with them." At 
last he went with them in despair, " because he thought it 
easier to fall by valour and championship and weapons than to 
fall by [druids'] wisdom and by reproach." 

The fight with Ferdiad is perhaps the finest episode in the 
Tain. The following is a description of the conduct of the 
warriors after the first day's conflict. 

\ 
THE FIGHT AT THE FORD. 3 

" They ceased fighting and threw their weapons away from them 
into the hands of their charioteers. Each of them approached the 
other forthwith and each put his hand round the other's neck and 
gave him three kisses. Their horses were in the same paddock that 
night, and their charioteers at the same fire ; and their charioteers 
spread beds of green rushes for them with wounded men's pillows 



1 The prominence given to and the laudatory comments on the non- 
Gaelic or non-Milesian races, such as the Gaileoins and Firbolg in this 
saga is very remarkable. It seems to me a proof of antiquity, because in 
later times these races were not prominent. 

2 These are the three blisters mentioned in Cormac's Glossary under 
the word gaire. Nede satirises — wrongfully — his uncle Caier, king of 
Connacht ; " Caier arose next morning early and went to the well. He 
put his hand over his countenance, he found on his face three blisters 
which the satire had caused, namely, Stain, Blemish, and Defect [on, 
anim, ciisbaidh"], to wit, red and green and white." 

3 I give here, for the most part, the translation given by Sullivan in his 
Addenda to O'Curry's "Manners and Customs," but it is an exceedingly 
faulty and defective one from a linguistic point of view. However, even 
though some words may be mistranslated or their sense mistaken, it is 
immaterial here. Windisch is said to have finished a complete translation 
of the Tain, but it has not as yet appeared anywhere. Max Netlau has 
studied the texts of the Ferdiad episode in vols. x. and xi. of the " Revue 
Celtique." 



THE TAIN BO CHUAILGNE 329 

to them. The professors of healing and curing came to heal and 
cure them, and they applied herbs and plants of healing and curing 
to their stabs, and their cuts, and their gashes, and to all their 
wounds. Of every herb and of every healing and curing plant that 
was put to the stabs and cuts and gashes, and to all the wounds of 
Cuchulain, he would send an equal portion from him, westward 
over the ford to Ferdiad, so that the men of Erin might not be able 
to say, should Ferdiad fall by him, that it was by better means of 
cure that he was enabled to kill him. 

" Of each kind of food and of palatable pleasant intoxicating 
drink that was sent by the men of Erin to Ferdiad, he would send a 
fair moiety over the ford northwards to Cuchulain, because the 
purveyors of Ferdiad were more numerous than the purveyors of 
Cuchulain. All the men of Erin were purveyors to Ferdiad for 
beating off Cuchulain from them, but the Bregians only were 
purveyors to Cuchulain, and they used to come to converse with 
him at dusk every night. They rested there that night." 

The narrator goes on to describe the next day's fighting, 
which was carried on from their chariots " with their great 
broad spears," and which left them both in such evil plight 
that the professors of healing and curing " could do nothing 
more for them, because of the dangerous severity of their 
stabs and their cuts and their gashes and their numerous 
wounds, than to apply witchcraft and incantations and charms 
to them to staunch their blood and their bleeding and their 
gory wounds." 

Their meeting on the next day follows thus : — 

"They arose early the next morning and came forward to the 
ford of battle, and Cuchulain perceived an ill-visaged and a greatly 
lowering cloud on Ferdiad that day. 

" ' Badly dost thou appear to-day, O Ferdiad,' said Cuchulain, 
' thy hair has become dark this day and thine eye has become 
drowsy, and thine own form and features and appearance have 
departed from thee.' 

" ' It is not from fear or terror of thee that I am so this day,' said 
Ferdiad, 'for there is not in Erin this day a champion that I could 
not subdue.' 

" And Cuchulain was complaining and bemoaning and he spake 
these words, and Ferdiad answered : 



330 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

GUCHULAIN. 

Oh, Ferdiad, is il thou ? 
Wretched man thou art I trow, 
By a guileful woman won 
To hurt thine old companion. 

Ferdiad. 
O Cuchulain, fierce of fight, 
Man of wounds and man of might, 
Fate compelleth each to stir 
Moving towards his sepulchre." 1 

The lay is then given, each of the heroes reciting a verse in 
turn, and it is very possibly upon these lays that the prose 
narrative is built up. The third day's fighting is then 
described in which the warriors use their " heavy hand- 
smiting swords," or rather swords that gave " blows of 
size. " 2 The story then continues — 

"They cast away their weapons from them into the hands of 
their charioteers, and though it had been the meeting pleasant and 
happy, griefless and spirited of two men that morning, it was the 
separation, mournful, sorrowful, dispirited, of the two men that 
night. 

" Their horses were not in the same enclosure that night. Their 
charioteers were not at the same fire. They rested that night 
there. 

" Then Ferdiad arose early next morning and went forwards alone 
to the ford of battle, for knew that that day would decide the battle 
and the fight, and he knew that one of them would fall on that day 
there or that they both would fall. 

• . • • • • 

" Ferdiad displayed many noble, wonderful, varied feats on high 
that day, which he never learned with any other person, neither 
with Scathach, nor with Uathach, nor with Aife, but which were 
invented by himself that day against Cuchulain. 

"Cuchulain came to the ford and he saw the noble, varied, 
wonderful, numerous feats which Ferdiad displays on high. 

1 This is the metre of the original. The last lines are literally, " A man 
is constrained to come unto the sod where his final grave shall be." The 
metre of the last line is wrong in the Book of Leinster, 

3 Tortbullech =toirt-bhuilleach. 



THE TAIN BO CHUAILGNE 331 

" ' I perceive these, my friend, Laeg ' [said Cuchulain to his 
charioteer], ' the noble, varied, wonderful, numerous feats which 
Ferdiad displays on high, and all these feats will be tried on me in 
succession, and, therefore, it is that if it be I who shall begin to 
yield this day thou art to excite, reproach, and speak evil to me, so 
that the ire of my rage and anger shall grow the more on me. If it 
be I who prevail, then thou shalt laud me, and praise me, and speak 
good words to me that my courage may be greater.' T 

" ' It shall so be done indeed, O Cuchulain,' said Laeg. 

" And it was then Cuchulain put his battle-suit of conflict and of 
combat and of fight on him, and he displayed noble, varied, wonder- 
ful, numerous feats on high on that day, that he never learned from 
anybody else, neither with Scathach, nor with Uathach, nor with 
Aife. Ferdiad saw those feats and he knew they would be plied 
against him in succession. 

" ' What weapons shall we resort to, O Ferdiad ? ' said Cuchulain. 

" ' To thee belongs thy choice of weapons till night,' said Ferdiad. 

" ■ Let us try the Ford Feat then,' said Cuchulain. 

" ' Let us indeed,' said Ferdiad. Although Ferdiad thus spoke his 
consent it was a cause of grief to him to speak so, because he knew 
that Cuchulain was used to destroy every hero and every champion 
who contended with him in the Feat of the Ford. 

" Great was the deed, now, that was performed on that day at the 
ford — the two heroes, the two warriors, the two champions of 
Western Europe, the two gift and present and stipend bestowing 
hands of the north-west of the world ; the two beloved pillars of the 
valour of the Gaels, and the two keys of the bravery of the Gaels to 
be brought to light from afar through the instigation and inter- 
meddling of Oilioll and Meve. 

" Each of them began to shoot at other with their missive weapons 
from the dawn of early morning till the middle of midday. And 
when midday came the ire of the men waxed more furious, and 
each of them drew nearer to the other. And then it was that Cuchu- 
lain on one occasion sprang from the brink of the ford and came on 
the boss of the shield of Ferdiad, son of Daman, for the purpose of 
striking his head over the rim of his shield from above. And it was 
then that Ferdiad gave the shield a blow of his left elbow and cast 

1 A common trait even in the modern Gaelic tales, as in the story of 
Iollan, son of the king of Spain, whose sweetheart urges him to the battle 
by chanting his pedigree ; and in Campbell's story of Conall Gulban, 
where the daughter of the King of Lochlann urges her bard to exhort 
her champion in the fight lest he may be defeated, and to give him 
" Brosnachadh file fir-ghlic," i.e., the urging of a truly wise poet. 



332 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Cuchulain from him like a bird on the brink of the ford. Cuchulain 
sprang from the brink of the ford again till he came on the boss of 
the shield of Ferdiad, son of Daman, for the purpose of striking his 
head over the rim of the shield from above. Ferdiad gave the shield 
a stroke of his left knee and cast Cuchulain from him like a little 
child on the brink of the ford. 

"Laeg [his charioteer] perceived that act. 'Alas, indeed,' said 
Laeg, ' the warrior who is against thee casts thee away as a lewd 
woman would cast her child. He throws thee as foam is thrown by 
the river. He grinds thee as a mill would grind fresh malt. He 
pierces thee as the felling axe would pierce the oak. He binds thee 
as the woodbine binds the tree. He darts on thee as the hawk darts 
on small birds, so that henceforth thou hast nor call nor right nor 
claim to valour or bravery to the end of time and life, thou little 
fairy phantom,' said Laeg. 

" Then up sprang Cuchulain with the rapidity of the wind and with 
the readiness of the swallow, and with the fierceness of the dragon 
and the strength of the lion into the troubled clouds of the air the 
third time, and he alighted on the boss of the shield of Ferdiad, son 
of Daman to endeavour to strike his head over the rim of his shield 
from above. And then it was the warrior gave the shield a shake, 
and cast Cuchulain from him into the middle of the ford, the same 
as if he had never been cast off at all. 

" And it was then that Cuchulain's first distortion came on, and he 
was filled with swelling and great fulness, like breath in a bladder, 
until he became a terrible, fearful, many-coloured, wonderful Tuaig, 
and he became as big as a Fomor, or a man of the sea, the great and 
valiant champion, in perfect height over Ferdiad. 1 

" So close was the fight they made now that their heads met above 
and their feet below and their arms in the middle over the rims and 
bosses of their shields. So close was the fight they made that they 
cleft and loosened their shields from their rims to their centres. So 
close was the fight which they made that they turned and bent and 
shivered their spears from their points to their hafts. Such was the 
closeness of the fight which they made that the Bocanachs and 
Bananachs, and wild people of the glens, and demons of the air 
screamed from the rims of their shields and from the hilts of their 
swords and from the hafts of their spears. Such was the closeness of 
the fight which they made that they cast the river out of its bed and 
out of its course, so that it might have been a reclining and reposing 
couch for a king or for a queen in the middle of the ford, so that 

1 Compare this with the Berserker rage of the Northmen. 



THE TAIN BO CHUAILGNE 333 

there was not a drop of water * in it unless it dropped into it by the 
trampling and the hewing which the two champions and the two 
heroes made in the middle of the ford. Such was the intensity of 
the fight which they made that the stud of the Gaels darted away in 
fright and shyness, with fury and madness, breaking their chains and 
their yokes, their ropes and their traces, and that the women and 
youths, and small people, and camp followers, and non-combatants of 
the men of Erin broke out of the camp south-westwards. 

" They were at the edge-feat of swords during the time. And it 
was then that Ferdiad found an unguarded moment upon Cuchulain, 
and he gave him a stroke of the straight-edged sword, and buried it 
in his body until his blood fell into his girdle, until the ford became 
reddened with the gore from the body of the battle-warrior. 
Cuchulain would not endure this, for Ferdiad continued his 
unguarded stout strokes, and his quick strokes and his tremendous 
great blows at him. And he asked Laeg, son of Riangabhra, for the 
Gae Bulg. The manner of that was this : it used to be set down the 
stream and cast from between the toes \lit. in the cleft of the foot], 
it made the wound of one spear in entering the body, but it had 
thirty barbs to open, and could not be drawn out of a person's 
body until it was cut open. And when Ferdiad heard the Gae Bulg 
mentioned he made a stroke of the shield down to protect his lower 
body. Cuchulain thrust the unerring thorny spear off the centre of 
his palm over the rim of the shield, and through the breast of the 
skin-protecting armour, so that its further half was visible after 
piercing his heart in his body. Ferdiad gave a stroke of his shield 
up to protect the upper part of his body, though it was ' the relief 
after the danger.' The servant set the Gae Bulg down the stream 
and Cuchulain caught it between the toes of his foot, and he threw 
an unerring cast of it at Ferdiad till it passed through the firm deep 
iron waistpiece of wrought iron and broke the great stone which 
was as large as a millstone in three, and passed through the protec- 
tions of his body into him, so that every crevice and every cavity of 
him was filled with its barbs. 

" ' That is enough now, indeed,' said Ferdiad, ' I fall of that. 
Now indeed may I say that I am sickly after thee, and not by thy 
hand should I have fallen,' and he said [here follow some verses] .... 

" Cuchulain ran towards him after that, and clasped his two arms 
about him and lifted him with his arms and his armour and his 
clothes across the ford northward, in order that the slain should lie 

1 Cf. the common Gaelic folk-lore formula, " they would make soft of 
the hard and hard of the soft, and bring cold springs of fresh water out of 
the hard rock with their wrestling." 



&4 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

by the ford on the north, and not by the ford on the west with the 
men of Erin. 

" Cuchulain [aid Ferdiad down there, and a trance and a faint and 
a weakness fell then on Cuchulain over Ferdiad. 

"'Good, O Cuchulain,' said Laeg, 'rise up now for the men of 
Erin are coming upon us, and it is not single combat they will give 
thee since Ferdiad, son of Daman, son of Dare, has fallen by thee.' 

" ' Servant,' said he, 'what availeth me to arise after him that hath 
fallen by me.' " 

Cuchulain is carried away swooning after this fight and is 
brought by the two sons of Geadh to the streams and rivers to 
be cured of his stabs and wounds, by plunging him in the 
waters and facing him against the currents, " for the Tuatha 
De Danann sent plants of grace and herbs of healing (floating) 
down the streams and rivers of Muirtheimhne, to comfort and 
help Cuchulain, so that the streams were speckled and green 
overhead with them." The Finglas, the Bush, the Douglas, 
and eighteen other rivers are mentioned as aiding to cure 
him. 

During the period of Cuchulain's leeching many events were 
happening in Meve's camp, amongst others the tragic death of 
her beautiful daughter, Finnabra. 1 Isolated bands of the men 
of Ulster were now beginning to at last muster in front of 
Meve, and amongst them came a certain northern chief, who 
was, as her daughter secretly confessed to Meve, her own love 
and sweetheart beyond all the men of Erin. 

The prudent Meve immediately desires her to go to him, if 
he is her lover, and do everything in her power to make him 
draw off his warriors. This design, however, got abroad, and 
came to the ears of the twelve Munster princes who led the 
forces of the southern province in Meve's army. These 
gradually make the discovery that the astute queen had 
secretly promised her daughter's hand to each one of the 
twelve, as an inducement to him to take part in her expedition. 
Infuriated at being thus trifled with and at Meve's treachery 

1 Or Findabar, the fair-eyebrowed one. 



THE TAIN BO CHUAILGNE 335 

in now sending her daughter to the Ultonian, they fall with 
all their forces upon the queen's battalion and the whole camp 
becomes a scene of blood and confusion. The warrior Fergus 
at last succeeds in separating the combatants, not before seven 
hundred men have fallen. But when Finnabra saw the 
slaughter that was raging, of which she herself was cause, 
"a blood-torrent burst from her heart in her bosom through 
(mingled) shame and generosity," and she was taken up dead. 
In the meantime Cuchulain is joined by another great 
Ultonian warrior, who is also being leeched. He had fallen 
upon the men of Erin single-handed, and received many 
wounds, one from Meve herself, who fought, like Boadicea, 
at the head of her troops. He describes the amazon who 
wounded him to Cuchulain — 

" A largely-nurtured, white-faced, long-cheeked woman, with a 
yellow mane on the top of her two shoulders, with a shirt of royal 
silk over her white skin, and a speckled spear red-flaming in her 
hand ; it was she who gave me this wound, and I gave her another 
small wound in exchange. 

" ' I know that woman,' said Cuchulain, ' that woman was Meve, 
and it had been glory and exultation to her had you fallen by her 
hand/ " 

Afterwards Sualtach, father of Cuchulain, heard the groans 
of his son as he was being cured, and said, " Is it heaven that 
is bursting, or the sea that is retiring, or the land that is 
loosening, or is it the groan of my son in his extremity that I 
hear ? " said he, Cuchulain despatches him to urge the 
Ultonians to his assistance. " Tell them how you found me," 
he said ; " there is not the place of the point of a needle in 
me from head to foot without a wound, there is not a hair 
upon my body without a dew of crimson blood upon the top 
of every point, except my left hand alone that was holding my 
shield."' 

And now the Ultonians begin to rally and face the men of 
Erin. Troops are seen to pour in from every quarter of 



:>:> 



6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 



Ulster, gathering upon the plains of Meath for the great battle 
that was impending. Meve sends out her trusted messenger 
to bring word of what is going on amongst the hostile bands. 
His first report is that the noise of the Ultonians hewing down 
the woods before their chariots with the edge of their swords 
was "like nothing but as it were the solid firmament fallinir 
upon the surface-face of the earth, or as it were the sky-blue 
sea pouring over the superficies of the plain, as it were the 
earth being rent asunder, or the forests falling [each tree] into 
the grasp and fork of the other." 

Mac Roth, the chief messenger, is again sent out to observe 
the gathering of the hosts and to bring word of what bands are 
coming in to the hill where Conor, king of Ulster, has set up 
his standard. On his return at nightfall there follows a long, 
minute, and tedious account, something like the list of ships in 
the Iliad, only broken by the questions of Meve and Oilioll, 
and the answers of Fergus. It contains, however, some pas- 
sages of interest. The scout describes the arrival of twenty- 
nine different armaments around their respective chiefs at the 
hill where King Conor is encamping. Incidentally he gives 
us descriptions of characters of interest in the Saga-cycle. As 
he ends his description of each band and its leaders, Oilioll 
turns to Fergus, and Fergus from Mac Roth's description 
recognises and tells him who the various leaders are. In this 
way we get a glimpse at Sencha, the wise man, the Nestor of 
the Red Branch, whose counsel was ever good. " That man," 
said Fergus, " is the speaker and peace-maker of the host of 
Ulster, and I pledge my word that it is no cowardly or 
unheroic counsel which that man will give to his lord this day, 
but counsel of vigour and valour and fight." We see the 
arrival of Feirceirtne, the arch-ollav of the Ultonians, or 
Cathbadh the Druid, he who had prophesied of Deirdre at her 
birth, who was supposed, according to the earliest accounts, to 
have been the real father of King Conor, he who weakened 
the children of Usnach by his spells ; and we see also Aithirne, 



THE TAIN BO CHUAILGNE 337 

the infamous and overbearing poet of the Ultonians, about 
whom much is related in other tales. " The lakes and rivers," 
said Fergus, "recede before him when he satirises them, and 
rise up before him when he praises them." " There are not 
many men in life, more handsome or more golden-locked than 
he," said Mac Roth, " he bears a gleaming ivory [-hiked] 
sword in his right hand." With this sword he amuses him- 
self, something like the Norman trouvere Taillefer at the battle 
of Hastings, by casting it aloft and letting it fall almost on the 
heads of his companions but without hurting them. The 
arch-druid is described as having scattered whitish-grey hair, 
and wearing a purple-blue mantle with a large gleaming 
shield and bosses of red brass, and a long iron sword of foreign 
look. Conor's leech, Finghin, led a band of physicians to the 
field ; " that man could tell," said Fergus, " what a person's 
sickness is by looking at the smoke of the house in which he 
is." Another hero whom we catch a glimpse of is the mighty 
Conall Cearnach, the greatest champion of the north, whose 
name was till lately a household word around Dunsevrick, he 
who afterwards so bloodily avenged Cuchulain's death, " the 
sea over seas, the bursting rock, the furious troubler of hosts," 
as Fergus calls him. 

We also see the youth Ere, son of Cairbre Niafer the 
High-king, who comes from Tara to assist his grandfather 
King Conor. It is curious, however, that in this catalogue 
of the Ultonians quite as much space is given to the description 
of men whose names are now — so far, at least, as I know — 
unknown to us, as to those who often and prominently figure 
in our yet remaining stories. 

At last the great battle of the Tain comes off, when the men 
of Ulster meet the men of Ireland fairly and face to face. 
Prodigies of valour are performed on both sides, and Fergus — 
who after Cuchulain is certainly the hero of the Tain — 
seconded by Oilioll, by Meve, by the Seven Maines, and by 
the sons of Magach, drives the Ultonians back on his side of 

Y 



338 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

the battle throe times. Conor, who is on the other flank, 
perceives that the men of his far wing are being broken, and 
loudly 

•• he shouts to the Household of the Red Branch, ' hold ye the place 
in the battle where I am, till I go find who it is who has thrice 
inclined the battle against us on the north.' 

" • We take that upon ourselves,' said they, 'for heaven is over us, 
and earth is under us, and unless the firmament fall down upon the 
wave-face of the earth, or the ocean encircle us, or the ground give 
way under us, or the ridgy blue-bordered sea rise over the expanse * 
of life, we shall give not one inch of ground before the men of Erin 
till thou come to us again, or till we be slain.' " 

Conor hastens northward and finds himself confronted by 
the man he had so bitterly wronged, whose hand had lain 
heavy on his province and himself, Fergus, who now comes 
face to face with him after so many years. Tremendous are 
the strokes of Fergus. 

" He smote his three enemy blows upon Conor's shield 'Eochain' 
so that the shield screamed thrice upon him, and the three leading 
waves of Erin answered it. 

" ' Who,' cries Fergus, ■ holds his shield against me in this battle ?' 3 
" ' O Fergus,' cried Conor, ' one who is greater and younger and 
handsomer, and more perfect than thyself is here, and whose father 
and whose mother were better than thine ; one who slew the three 
great candles of the valour of the Gaels, the three prosperous sons 
of Usnach, in spite of thy guarantee and thy protection, the man 
who banished thee out of thy own land and country, the man who 
made of it a dwelling-place for the deer and the roe and the foxes, 
the man who never left thee as much as the breadth of thy foot of 
territory in Ulster, the man who drove thee to the entertainment of 
women, 3 and the man who will drive thee back this day in the 
presence of the men of Erin, [I] Conor, son of Fachtna Fathach, 
High-king of Ulster, and son of the High-king of Ireland." 

Despite this boasting he would certainly have been slain by 
his great opponent had not one of his sons clasped his arms in 

1 "Tulmuing." Seep. 7. 

2 I do not think this is rightly translated, but the passage is obscure tome. 

3 Alluding to Fergus serving with Queen Meve. 



THE TAIN BO CHUAILGNE 339 

supplication around Fergus's knees and conjured him not to 
destroy Ulster, and Fergus, melted by these entreaties, con- 
sented to remain passive if Conor retired to the other wing of 
the battle, which he did. 

In the meantime Meve had sent away the Dun Bull with 
fifty heifers round him and eight men, to drive him to her 
palace in Connacht, " so that whoever reached Cruachan 
alive, or did not reach it, the Dun Bull of Cuailgne should 
reach it as she had promised.'" 

Cuchulain, who had joined the Ultonians, and whose arms 
had been taken from him, lest in his enfeebled condition he 
should injure himself by taking part in the fray, unable to 
bear any longer the look of the battle, the shouting and the 
war-cries, rushes into the fight with part of his broken chariot 
for a weapon, and performs mighty feats. At length he ceases 
to slay at Meve's solicitation, whose life he spares, and the 
shattered remnants of her host begin slowly to withdraw 
across the ford. " Oilioll draws his shield of protection behind 
the host [/.*., covers the rear], Meve draws her shield of 
protection in her own place, Fergus draws his shield of pro- 
tection, the Maines draw their shield of protection, the sons 
of Magach draw their shield of protection behind the host ; 
and in this manner they brought with them the men of Erin 
across the great ford westward," nor did they cease their retreat 
till Meve and her army found themselves at Cruachan in 
Connacht, whence they had set out. 

The long saga ends with a decided anti-climax, the encounter 
between the Dun Bull, whom Meve had carried off, and her 
own bull, the White-Horned. 1 These bulls, according to one 

1 The Finnbheannach, pronounced " Fin-van-ach." Both the bulls were 
endowed with intelligence. One of the virtues of the Dun Bull was that 
neither Bocanachs nor Bananachs nor demons of the glens could come 
into one cantred to him. There emanated from him, too, when returning 
home every evening, a mysterious music, so that the men of the cantred 
where he was, required no other music. The war-goddess herself, the 
Mor-rigu, speaks to him. 



340 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

of the most curious of the short auxiliary sagas to the Tain, 
were really rebirths of two men who hated each other during 
life, and now fought it out in the form of bulls. When they 
caught sight of each other they pawed the earth so furiously 
that they sent the sods flying across their shoulders, " they 
rolled the eyes in their heads like flames of fiery lightning.' , 
All day long they charged, and thrust, and struggled, and 
bellowed, while the men of Ireland looked on, " but when the 
night came they could do nothing but be listening to the noises 
and the sounds." The two bulls traversed much of Ireland 
during that night. 1 Next morning the people of Cruachan 
saw the Dun Bull coming with the remains of his enemy upon 
his horns. The men of Connacht would have intercepted 
him, but Fergus, ever generous, swore with a great oath that 
all that had been done in the pursuit of the Tain was nothing 
to what he would do if the Dun Bull were not allowed to 
return to his own country with his kill. The Dun made 
straight for his home at Cuailgne in Louth. He drank of the 
Shannon at Athlone, and as he stooped one of his enemy's loins 
fell off from his horn, hence Ath-luain, the Ford of the Loin. 
After that he rushed, mad with passion, towards his home, 
killing every one who crossed his way. Arrived there, he set 
his back to a hill and uttered wild bellowings of triumph, 
until " his heart in his breast burst, and he poured his heart in 
black mountains of brown blood out across his mouth." 
Thus far the Tain Bo Chuailgne. 

1 Every place in Ireland, says the saga, that is called Cluain-na-dtarbh, 
Magh-na-dtarbh, Bearna-na-dtarbh, Druim-na-dtarbh, Loch-na-dtarbh, i.e., 
the Bull's meadow, plain, gap, ridge, lake, etc., has its name from them ! 



CHAPTER XXVII 



THE DEATH OF CUCHULAIN 



Although Cuchulain won for himself in this war an imperish- 
able fame, yet he was not destined to enjoy it long, for he 
perished before arriving at middle age. 1 The account of his 
death is preserved in the Book of Leinster, a manuscript of 
the middle of the twelfth century, which quotes incidentally 
from an Irish poet 2 of the seventh century, thus showing that 
Cuchulain was at this early age the hero of the poets. Un- 
fortunately the opening of the story in the Book of Leinster 
is lost, but many modern extensions of the saga still exist, from 
one of which in my possession I shall supply what is missing.3 

Cuchulain had three formidable enemies, who were bent 
upon his life, these were Lughaidh [Lewy] the son of the 

1 He died at the age of twenty-seven years, according to the Annals of 
Tighearnach, and also according to a note in the Book of Ballymote, 
which Charles O'Conor of Belinagare identifies as an extract from the 
Synchronisms of Flann of Monasterboice, who died in 1056. But an 
account in a MS. H. 3. 17, in Trinity College, Dublin, which was copied 
about the year 1460, asserts that Cuchulain died in his fifty-ninth year. 

1 (Sec O'Curry's MS. Mat., p. 507.) 

2 Cennfaelad, son of Ailill. 

3 This MS., which contains many of the Cuchulain sagas, was copied 
about a hundred years ago by a scribe named Seaghain O'Mathghamhna 

I on an island in the Shannon, 

m 



342 LITERARY ///STORY OF IRELAND 

Momonian king Curigh, 1 whom Cuchulain had slain, Ere, the 
son of Cairbre Niafer king of all Ireland, who was slain in 
the battle of Rosnaree, a and the descendants of the wizard 
Calatin, who with his twenty sons and his son-in-law fell by 
Cuchulain in one of the combats at the Ford, during the raid of 
the Tain. His wife, however, brought into the world three 
posthumous children, daughters. 3 These unhappy creatures 
Meve mutilated by cutting off their right legs and left arms, 
so that they might be odious and horrible, and all the fitter 
for the dread profession she proposed for them — evil wizardry. 
She reared them carefully, and so soon as they were of a 
fitting age she sent them into the world to gain a knowledge 
of charms and spells, and druidism, and witchcraft, and incanta- 
tions. In pursuit of this knowledge they roamed throughout 
the world, and at last returned to the queen as perfect adepts 
as might be. 

Thereupon she convened a second muster of the men of the 
four provinces, and joined by Lewy the son of Curigh, and 
Ere the son of Cairbre Niafer, both of whose parents had 
fallen by Cuchulain, and having with her the odious but 
powerful children of Calatin, eager to avenge the death of 
their father and their family, she again marched upon Ulster 

1 The older form of this name is Curoi. A detailed account of this saga 
is given by Keating. See p. 282 of O'Mahony's edition. The saga is 
also told under the title of Aided Conrui, in Egerton 88, British Museum. 

2 The saga of the battle of Rosnaree has recently been published with a 
translation by Rev. Ed. Hogan, S.J. 

3 Some say six children — three daughters and three sons. The MS. 
H. i. 8, in Trinity College, which dates from about 1460, according to 
O'Curry, relates thus : " And the sons of Cailitin were eight years after 
the Tain before they went to pursue their learning, for they were but 
infants in cradles at the time their father was killed. Nine years for them 
after that pursuing their learning. Seven years after finishing their 
learning was spent in making their weapons, because there could be 
found but one day in the year to make their spears. And three years 
after that did the sons of Cailitin spend in assembling and marching 
the men of Erin to Belach Mic Uilc in Magh Muirtheimhne (Cuehulain's 
patrimony)." 



THE DEATH OF CUCHULAIN 343 

during the sickness of their warriors, and began to plunder 
and to burn and to drive away a mighty prey. King Conor 
immediately surmised that it was against Cuchulain the 
expedition was prepared, and without a moment's delay he 
depatched Lavarcam his female messenger, to desire him 
instantly to leave his palace and his patrimony at Dundealgan I 
in the plain of Muirtheimhne, and come to himself at Emania, 
there to be under the King's immediate orders. This command 
he gave, thinking to rescue Cuchulain from the possible effects 
of his own valour and rashness, for there was scarcely a man 
of distinction in any of the four provinces of Erin some of 
whose relatives had not been slain by him. 

Lavarcam found the hero upon the shore, between sea and 
land, intent upon the slaying of sea-fowl with his sling, but 
though birds many flew over him and past him, not one could 
he bring down — they all escaped him. And this was to him 
the first bad omen. Very reluctantly did he obey the call of 
Conor, and sorely loath was he to leave his patrimony. He 
accompanied Lavarcam, however, to Emania, and abode there 
in his own bright-lighted crystal grianan. Then Conor con- 
sulted with his druids as to how best to keep him there, and 
they sent the bright ladies of Emania, and his wife Emer, and 
the poets and the musicians, and the men of science, to sur- 
round and distract and amuse him, with conversation and 
music and banquets. 

In the meantime, however, Meve's army had advanced upon 
and burned Dundealgan, and the children of Calatin had 
promised that within three days and three nights they would 
brine; Cuchulain to his doom. 

And now ensues what is to my mind one of the most 
powerful incidents in all this saga — the malignant ghoulish 
efforts of the children of Calatin to draw forth Cuchulain 
from his place of safety, and on the other side the anxiety of 
the druids and ladies, and the frenzied heart-sick efforts of his 
1 Now Dundalk in the County Louth. 



544 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

wife, and his mistress, to detain him. The loathsome wizards 
flew through the air and stationed themselves upon the plain 
outside Emania — 

"They smote the soil and beat and tore it up around them, so that 
they made of fuz-balls, and of stalks of sauna, and of the fine foliage 
of the oaks, as it were ordered battalions, and hosts, and multitudes 
of men, and the confused shoutings of the battalions and of the war- 
bands, and the battle array, were heard on all sides, as it were 
striking and attacking the fortress." 

Geanan the druid, the son of old Cathbadh, was watching 
Cuchulain this day. As soon as the sounds of war and shout- 
ing reached him Cuchulain rose and "looked forth, and he saw 
the battalions smiting each other unsparingly," as he thought, 
and he burned at once with fury and shame ; but the druid 
cast his two arms round him in time to prevent him from 
bursting forth to relieve the apparently foe-beleaguered town. 
Over and over again must the druid assure him that all he saw 
was blind-work and magic, and unreal phantoms, employed by 
the clan Calatin to lure him forth to his destruction. 1 It was 
impossible, however, to keep Cuchulain from at least looking, 
and, the next time he looked forth, 

" he thought he beheld the battalions drawn up upon the plains, 
and the next time he looked after that he thought he saw Gradh 
son of Lir upon the plain, and it was a gets (tabu) to him to see that, 
and then he thought moreover that he heard the harp of the son of 
Mangur playing musically, ever-sweetly, and it was a gets to him to 
listen to those pleasing fairy sounds, and he recognised from these 
things that his virtue was indeed overcome, and that his geasa 
(tabus) were broken, and that the end of his career had arrived, 
and that his valour and prowess were destroyed by the children of 
Calatin." 

After that one of the daughters of the wizard Calatin, 

1 " Ni bhfuil acht saobh-lucht siabhartha ann sud, sian-sgarrtha duaibh- 
siocha draoidheachta do dhealbhadar clann cuirpthe Chailitin go claon- 
mhillteach fad' chomhair-se, dod' chealgadh, agus dod' chomh-bhuaidh- 
readh, a churaidh chalma chath-bnuadhaigh," 



THE DEATH OF CUCHULAIN 345 

assuming the form of a crow, came flying over him and 
incited him with taunts to go and rescue his homestead and 
his patrimony from the hands of his enemies. And although 
Cuchulain now understood that these were enchantments that 
were working against him, yet was he none the less anxious 
to rush forth and oppose them, for he felt moved and troubled 
in himself at the shouting of the imaginary hosts, and his 
memory, and his senses, and his right mind were afflicted by 
the sounds of that ever-thrilling harp. 

Then the druid used all his influence, explaining to him 
that if he would only remain for three days more in Emania 
the spells would have no power, and he would go forth again, 
" and the whole world would be full of his victories and his 
lasting renown," and thereafter the ladies of Emania and the 
musicians closed round him, and they sang sweet melodies, 
and they distracted his mind, and the day drew to a close : — 
the clan Calatin retired baffled, and Cuchulain was himself 
once more. 

During that night the ladies and the druids took council 
together and determined to carry him away to a glen so remote 
and lonely that it was called the Deaf Valley, and to hide him 
there, preparing for him a splendid banquet, with music, and 
poets, and delights of every kind. 

Next morning came the accursed wizards and inspected the 
city, and they marvelled that they saw not Cuchulain, and 
that he was neither beside his wife, nor yet amongst the other 
heroes of the Red Branch. Then they understood that he 
had been hidden away by Cathbadh the druid, "and they 
raised themselves aloft, lightly and airily, upon a blast of 
enchanted wind, which they created to lift them," and went 
soaring over the entire province of Ulster to discover his 
retreat. This they do by perceiving Cuchulain's grey steed, 
the Liath Macha, standing outside at the entrance to the 
glen. Then the three begin their wizardry anew, and made, 
as it were, battalions of warriors to appear round the glen, 



346 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

and they raised anew the sounds of arms and the shouts of war 
and conflict, as they had done at Emania. 

The instant the ladies round Cuchulain heard it they also 
shouted, and the musicians struck up — but in vain ; Cuchulain 
had caught the sound. They succeeded, however, in calming 
his mind, and in inducing him to pay no heed to the false 
witcheries of the clan Calatin. These continued for a Ion 2: 
time waiting and filling the air with their unreal battle tumult, 
but Cuchulain did not appear. Then they understood that 
the druids had been more powerful than they. Mad with 
impotent fury one of them enters the glen, and pushes her way 
right into the very fortress where Cuchulain was feasting. 
Once there she changes herself into the form of the beautiful 
Niamh [Nee-av], Cuchulain's love and sweetheart. First she 
stood at the door in the likeness of an attendant damsel, and 
beckoned to the lady to come to her outside. Niamh, think- 
ing she has something to communicate, follows her through 
the door and out into the valley, and the other ladies follow 
Niamh. Instantly she raises an enchanted fog between them 
and the dun, so that they wander astray, and their minds are 
troubled. But she, assuming the form of the lady Niamh her- 
self, slips back into the fortress, comes to Cuchulain, and cries 
to him : " Up, O Cuchulain, and meet the men of Erin, or 
thy fame shall be lost for ever, and the province shall be 
destroyed." At this speech Cuchulain is astounded, for Niamh 
had bound him by an oath that he would not go forth or take 
arms until she herself should give him leave, and this leave he 
never thought to receive or her until the fatal time was over. 
" I shall go," said Cuchulain, "and thttt is a pity, O Niamh," 
said he, " and after that it is difficult to trust to woman, for 
I had thought thou hadst not given me that leave for the gold 
of the world, but since it is thou who dost let me go to face 
the men of Erin, I shall go." After that he rose and left the 
dun. "I have no reason fcr preserving my life longer," said 
Cuchulain, " for the end of my time is come, and all my 



THE DEATH OF CUCHULAIN 347 

geasa (tabus) are lost, and Niamh has let me go to face the 
men of Erin ; and since she has let me, I shall go." 

Afterwards the real Niamh overtakes him at the entrance to 
the glen, and assured him with torrents of tears, and wild sobs, 
that it was not she who had given him leave, but the vile 
enchantress who had assumed her form, and she conjured him 
with prayers and piteous entreaties to remain with her. But 
Cuchulain would not believe her, and urged Laeg to catch his 
steeds and yoke them, for he thought that he beheld — 

"The great battle-battalions ranged upon the green of Emania, 
and the whole plain filled up and crowded with broad bands of 
hundreds of men, with champions, and steeds, and arms, and 
armour, and he thought he heard the awful shoutings, and [saw] 
the burnings extending, widely-let-loose through the buildings 
of Conor's city, and him-seemed that there was nor hill nor 
rising ground about Emania that was not full of spoils, and it 
appeared to him that Emer's sunny-house was overthrown and had 
fallen out over the ramparts of Emania, and that the House of the 
Red Branch was in one blaze, and that all Emania was one meeting- 
place of fire, and of black, dark, spacious, brown-red smoke." * 

Then Cuchulain's brooch fell from his hand and pierced his 
foot, another omen of ill. Nor would his noble grey war-horse 
allow himself to be caught. It was only when Cuchulain 
addressed him with persuasive words of verse that he consented 
to let himself be harnessed to the chariot, and even then " he 

1 Up to this I have followed the version of my own modern manuscript. 
From this out, however, the version in the twelfth-century Book of Leinster 
is used. Monsieur d'Arbois de Jubainville, in his introduction to the fragment 
of the saga in the Book of Leinster, seems to think that Emania was really 
besieged, and women and children slaughtered round its walls by the 
men of Erin, whereas it wor'd appear that the lost part of the saga refers 
to some such version as I have given from my manuscript, and that it was 
only the wizardry and sorcery of the children of Calatin, who raised these 
phantasms. This is the more evident because Cuchulain, when he issues 
forth, meets no enemy until he has arrived at the plain of Muirtheimhne. 
Jubainville's words are, " Cependant les cris de douleur des femmes et 
des enfants qu'on massacrait jusqu'au pied des remparts d'Emain macha 
[Emania] parvinrent a son oreille : on en verra un peu plus bas les conse- 
quences, dont la derniere fut la mort du heros." 



348 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

lets fall upon his tore feet, from his eyes, two large tears or 
blood." In vain did the ladies of Emania try to bar his 
passage, in vain did fifty queens uncover their bosoms before 
him in supplication. " He is the first," says the saga, "of 
whom it is recounted that women uncovered before him their 
bosoms." x 

Thereafter another evil omen overtook him, for as he pursued 
the high road leading to the south, 

" and had passed the plain of Mogna, he perceived something, three 
hags of the half-blind race, 2 who were on the track before him cook- 
ing a poisoned dog's flesh upon spits of holly. Now it was a geis 
(tabu) to Cuchulain to pass a cooking-fire without visiting it and 
accepting food. It was another geis to eat of his own name" [i.e., a 
hound, he is Cu-Chulain or Culan's hound], "so he pauses not, but 
passes the three hags. Then one of them cries to him — 

" ■ Come, visit us, Cuchulain.' 

" ' I shall not visit you,' said Cuchulain. 

" ' There is something to eat here,' replied the hag ; ' we have a 
dog to offer thee. If our cooking-place were great,' said she, ' thou 
wouldst come, but because it is small thou comest not ; a great man 
who despises the small, deserves no honour.' 

"Cuchulain then moved over to the hag, and she with her left 
hand offered him half the dog. Cuchulain ate, and it was with his 
left hand he took the piece, and he placed part of it under his left 
thigh, and his left hand and his left thigh were cursed, and the curse 
reached all his left side, which from his head to his feet lost a great 
part of its power." 

At last Cuchulain meets the enemy on his ancestral patri- 
mony of Moy Muirtheimhne, drawn up in battle array, with 
shield to shield as though it were one solid plank that was 
around them. Cuchulain displays his feats from his chariot, 
especially "his three thunder-feats — the thunder of an hundred, 
the thunder of three hundred, the thunder of thrice nine 
men. 



1 It was geis, or tabu, to him to behold the exposed breast of a woman. 
See above, p. 301. 

2 These are in my version the three daughters of Calatin, 



THE DEATH OP CUCHULA1N 349 

" He played equally with spear, shield, and sword, he performed 
all the feats of a warrior. As many as there are of grains of sand in 
the sea, of stars in the heaven, of dewdrops in May, of snowflakes 
in winter, of hailstones in a storm, of leaves in a forest, of ears of corn 
in the plains of Bregia, of sods beneath the feet of the steeds of Erin 
on a summer's day, so many halves of heads, and halves of shields, and 
halves of hands and halves of feet, so many red bones were scattered 
by him throughout the plain of Muirtheimhne, it became grey with 
the brains of his enemies, so fierce and furious was Cuchulain's 
onslaught." 

The plan which Ere, son of the late High-king Cairbre 
Niafer had adopted was to place two men pretending to fight 
with one another upon each flank of the army and a druid 
standing near who should first make Cuchulain separate the 
combatants, and should then demand from him his spear, since 
there ran a prophecy to the effect that Cuchulain's spear should 
kill a king, but if they could get the spear from him they at 
least would be safe from the prophecy ; it would not be one of 
them who should be slain by it. 

Cuchulain separates the fighters as the druid asks him, by 
killing each of them with a blow. 

" ' You have separated them,' said the druid, ' they shall do each 
other no more harm.' 

" ' They would not be so silenced,' said Cuchulain, ' hadst thou not 
prayed me to interfere between them.' 

" ' Give me thy spear, O Cuchulain,' said the druid. 

" ' I swear by the oath which my nation swears,' said Cuchulain, 
'you have no greater need of the spear than I. All the warriors 
of Erin are come together against me, and I must defend myself.' 

" ' If thou refuse me,' said the druid, ' I shall solemnly utter against 
thee a magic curse.' 

" ' Up to this time,' replied Cuchulain, ' no curse has ever been 
levelled against me for any act of refusal on my part.' " 

And with that he reversed his spear and threw it at the druid 
butt foremost, killing him and nine more. Lewy, the son of 
Curigh, immediately picked it up. 

" ' Whom,' said he to the children of Calatin, 'is this to 
overthrow ? ' 



350 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

" ' It is a king whom that spear shall slay,' said they. 

Lewy hurled it at Cuchulain's chariot, and it pierced Laeg, 
his charioteer. 

Cuchulain bade his charioteer farewell. 

" c To-day,' said Cuchulain, 'I shall he both warrior and 
charioteer. 

The same incident happens again. Cuchulain kills the second 
druid in the same way, and his spear is picked up by Ere. 

" ' Children of Calatin,' said Ere, ' what exploit shall this spear 
perform ? ' 

" ' It shall overthrow a king,' said they. 

"'You said this spear would overthrow a king when Lewy hurled 
it some time ago,' said Ere. 

" ' Nor were we deceived,' said they, ' that spear has brought down 
the king of the charioteers of Ireland, Laeg, the son of Riangabhra, 
Cuchulain's charioteer.' " 

Ere hurls the spear and it passes through the side of Cuchu- 
lain's noble steed, the Liath Macha. Cuchulain took a fond 
farewell of the animal who galloped with half the yoke around 
its neck to the lake from whence he had first taken it, on the 
mountain of Euad in far-off Armagh. 

The third time a druid demands his spear, and is killed by 
Cuchulain, who throws it to him handle foremost. The spear 
is picked up this time by Lewy son of Curigh. 

" f What feat shall this spear perform, ye children of Calatin ? ' 
said Lewy. 

" ' It shall overthrow a king,' said they. 

"' Ye said as much when Ere hurled it this morning,' answered 
Lewy. 

" ' Yes,' answered the children of Calatin, ' and our word was true. 
The spear which Ere hurled has wounded mortally the king of the 
steeds of Ireland, the Liath Macha.' 

" 1 1 swear then,' said Lewy, ' by the oath which my nation swears, 
that Erc's blow smote not the king which this spear is to slay.' " 

Then Lewy hurls the spear, and this time pierces Cuchulain 
through the body, and Cuchulain's other steed burst the yoke 



THE DEATH OF CUCHULAIN 351 

and rushed off and never ceased till he, too, had plunged into the 
lake from which Cuchulain had taken him in far-off Munster. 1 
Cuchulain remained behind, dying in his chariot. With difficulty 
and holding in his entrails with one hand, he advanced to a 
little lake hard by, and drank from it, and washed off his blood. 
Then he propped himself against a high stone a few yards from 
the lake, and tied himself to it with his girdle. " He did not 
wish to die either sitting or lying, it was standing," says the 
saga, " that he wished to meet death." 

But his grey steed, the Liath Macha, 2 returned once more to 
defend his lord, and made three terrible charges, scattering with 
tooth and hoof all who would approach the stone where Cuchu- 
lain was dying. At last a bird was seen to alight upon his 
shoulder. " Yon pillar used not to be a settling place for birds," 
said Ere. They knew then that he was dead. Lewy, the son 
of Curigh, seized him by the back hair and severed his head 
from his body. 

But Cuchulain was too important an epic hero to thus finish 
with him. Another very celebrated, but probably later epopee 
tells of how his friend Conall Cearnach pursued the retreating 
army and exacted vengeance for his death. A brief digest of 
Conall's revenge is contained in the Book of Leinster, but modern 
copies of much longer and more literary versions exist, and there 
was no more celebrated poem amongst the later Gael than that 

1 The belief in water-horses is quite common even still amongst the old 
people in all parts of Connacht, and, I think, over the most of Ireland. 

2 With the Liath Macha so renowned throughout the whole Cuchulain 
saga compare Areion, the celebrated steed of Adrastus, who saved his 
master at the rout of the Argeian chiefs round Thebes. The Liath Macha 
returns to the water from whence it came, and Areion, too, was believed 
to have been the offspring of Poseidon. He is alluded to by Nestor in the 
Iliad xxiii. 346 : 

ovk taO' oq k'c. <j"e\y<ji psraXpevoQ ovSe TrapkXBy^ 

OVO £1 K£V yUE7-O7Tl0(7#£l/ ' ApUOVd clov tXdVVOl, 

'Adpijaruv rayi)v "i-ktzov oq tt: Beocpiv y'tvoq r}tv. 
He appears, however, to have been black not grey. Hesiod alludes to him 
as fieyav irr—ov Apuova KVdvoxai-rjv. 



352 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

called the Lav of the Heads in which Conall Cearnach returns to 
Emer, Cuchulain's wife, to Emania, with a large bundle of heads 
strung upon a gad, or withy-wand, thrust through their mouths 
from cheek to cheek, and there explains in a lay to Emer who 
they were. 

In the ancient version in the Book of Leinster it is only 
Lewy who is slain by Conall. In my more modern recension 
he slays Ere and the children of Calatin as well, and recovers 
the head of Cuchulain, which he found being used as a football 
by two men near Tara. " If this city," said he of Tara, 
" were Erc's own lordship and patrimony I would burn it 
down, but since it is the very navel and meeting-point of the 
men of Ireland, I shall affront it no more." 

Emer's joy and her grief on recovering her husband's head are 
touchingly described. 

"She washed clean the head and she joined it on to its body, and 
she pressed it to her heart and her bosom, and fell to lamenting and 
heavily sorrowing over it, and began to suck in its blood and to drink 
it, 1 and she placed around the head a lovely satin cloth. ' Ochone !' 
said she, ' good was the beauty of this head, although it is low this 
day, and it is many of the kings and princes of the world would be 
keening it if they thought it was like this ; and the men who demand 
gold and treasure, and ask petitions of the men of Erin and Alba 
[i.e., the poets and druids] thou wast their one love and their one 
choice of the men of the earth, and woe for me that I remain behind 
this day ; for there was not of the women of Erin, nor in the whole 
great world, a woman mated with a husband, or unmated, not a single 
one, who, until this day, was not envious of me ; for many were the 
goods and jewels and rents and tributes from the countries of the world 
that thou broughtest to me, with the valour and strength of thy 
hand,' and she took his hand in hers and fell to making lamentations 
over it, and to telling of its fame and its exploits, and 't was what 
she said, 'Alas !' said she, ' it is many of the kings and of the chieftains 
and of the strong men of the world that fell by this hand, and it is 

1 "Do rinne an ceann do niamhghlanadh agus do chuirarachollain fein e, 
agus do dhruid re na h-ucht agus n-a h-urbhruinne e, agus do ghaibh ag 
tuirse agus ag trom-mheala os a chionn, agus do ghaibh ag sughadh a 
choda fola agus ag a h-6l," etc. This was to express affection. Deirdre 
does the same when her husband is slain, she laps his blood. 



THE DEATH OF CUCHULAIN 353 

many of the goods and treasures of this world that were scattered 
by it upon poets and men of knowledge,' and she spake the lay, 

" ' Ochone O head, Ochone O head,' " etc. 

Afterwards Conall Cearnach arrives with his pile of heads 
and planted them carefully "all round about the wide grass- 
green lawn " upon pointed sticks, and relates to Emer who they 
were and how they fell. 1 

"Thereafter," says the saga, " Emer desired Conall to make 
a wide very deep tomb for Cuchulain," and she laid herself 
down in it along with her gentle mate, and she set her mouth 
to his mouth, and she spake — 

" ' Love of my soul,' she said, ' O friend, O gentle sweetheart, and 
O thou one choice of the men of the earth, many is the woman 
envied me thee until now, and I shall not live after thee ; ' and her 
soul departed out of her, and she herself and Cuchulain were laid in 
the one grave by Conall, and he raised their stone over their tomb, 
and he wrote their names in Ogam, and their funeral games were 
performed by him and by the Ultonians. 

"THUS FAR THE RED ROUT OF CONALL CEARNACH.'' 



1 This is the celebrated Laoi na gceann, or Lay of the Heads, which 
begins by Emer asking — 

"A Chonaill cia h-iad na cinn ? 

Is dearbh linn gar dheargais h-airm, 
Na cinn o tharla ar an ngad 

Slointear leat na fir d'ar baineadh." 

It was popular in the Highlands also. There is a copy in the book of the 
Dean of Lismore, published by Cameron in his " Reliquiae Celticae," vol. i. 
p. 66. Also in the Edinburgh MSS. 36 and 38. See ibid. pp. 113 and 115. 
The piece consists of 116 lines. The oldest form of Emer's lament over 
Cuchulain, "Nuallguba Emire," is in the Book of Leinster, p. 123, a. 20. 
It is a kind of unrhymed chant. The lament I have given is from my 
own modern manuscript. 



CHAPTER XXVIII 

OTHER SAGAS OF THE RED BRANCH 

Another saga belonging to this cycle affords so curious a 
picture of pagan customs that it is worth while to give here 
some extracts from it. This is the story of Mac Datho's Pig 
and Hound, which is contained in the Book of Leinster, a 
MS. copied about the year 1150. It was first published with- 
out a translation by Windisch in his " Irische Texte," from the 
Book of Leinster copy collated with two others. It has since 
been translated by Kuno Meyer from a fifteenth-century 
vellum. 1 The story runs as follows. 

Mac Datho was a famous landholder in Leinster, and he 
possessed a hound so extraordinarily strong and swift that it 
could run round Leinster in a day. All Ireland was full of 
the fame of that hound, and every one desired to have it. It 
struck Meve and Oilioll, king and queen of Connacht, to 
send an embassy to Mac Datho to ask him for his hound, at 
the same time that the notion came to Conor, king of Ulster, 
that he also would like to possess it. Two embassies reach 
Mac Datho's house at the same time, the one from Connacht 
and the other from Ulster, and both ask for the hound for their 
respective masters. Mac Datho's house was one of those open 

1 " Hibernica Minora," p. 57, from Rawlinson B. 512, in the Bodleian 
Library. I have followed his excellent translation nearly verbatim. 
354 



OTHER SAGAS OF THE RED BRANCH 355 

hostelries 1 of which there were five at that time in Ireland. 

" Seven doors," says the saga, " there were in each hostelry, seven 
roads through it, and seven fireplaces therein. Seven caldrons in 
the seven fireplaces. An ox and a salted pig would go into each of 
these caldrons, and the man that came along the road would (i.e., 
any traveller who passed the way was entitled to) thrust the flesh 
fork into the caldron, and whatever he brought up with the first 
thrust, that he would eat, and if nothing were brought up with the 
first thrust there was no other for him." 

The messengers are brought before Mac Datho to his bed, 
and questioned as to the cause of their coming. 

" ' To ask for the hound are we come,' said the messengers of 
Connacht, 'from Oilioll and from Meve, and in exchange for it there 
shall be given three score hundred milch cows at once, and a chariot 
with the two horses that are best in Connacht under it, and as much 
again at the end of the year besides all that.' 

" ' We, too, have come to ask for it,' said the messengers of Ulster, 
'and Conor is no worse a friend than Oilioll and Meve, and the same 
amount shall be given from the north (i.e., from the Ultonians) and 
be added to, and there will be good friendship from it continually.' 

" Mac Datho fell into a great silence, and was three days and 
nights without sleeping, nor could he eat food for the greatness 
of his trouble, but was moving about from one side to another. It 
was then his wife addressed him and said, ' Long is the fast in 
which thou art,' said she ; ' there is plenty of food by thee, though 
thou dost not eat it.' 

" And then she said — 

" Sleeplessness was brought 
To Mac Datho into his house. 
There was something on which he deliberated 
Though he speaks to none. 2 

He turns away from me to the wall, 
The Hero of the Fene of fierce valour, 
His prudent wife observes 
That her mate is without sleep." 

A dialogue in verse follows. The wife advises her husband 

1 In Old Irish, Bruidcn ; in modern, Bruidhean (Bree-an). 

3 " Tucad turbaid chotulta / do Mac Datho co a thech. 
Ros boi ni no chomaiiicd / cen co labradar i'ri ncch." 



356 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

to promise the hound to both sets of messengers. In his 
perplexity he weakly decides to do this. After the messengers 
had stayed with him for three nights and days, feasting, he 
called to him first the envoys of Connacht and said to them — 

" ' I was in great doubt and perplexity, and this is what is grown 
out of it, that I have given the hound to Oilioll and Meve, and let 
them come for it splendidly and proudly, with as many warriors 
and nobles as they can get, and they shall have drink and food and 
many gifts besides, and shall take the hound and be welcome.' 

" He also went with the messengers of Ulster and said to them, 
' After much doubting I have given the hound to Conor, and let him 
and the flower of the province come for it proudly, and they shall 
have many other gifts and you shall be welcome.' But for one and 
the same day he made his tryst with them all." 

Accordingly on the appointed day the warriors and men of 
each province arrive at his hostelry in great state and pomp. 

"He himself went to meet them and bade them welcome. "Tis 
welcome ye are, O warriors,' said he, ' come within into the close.' 

" Then they went over, and into the hostelry ; one half of the 
house for the men of Connacht and the other half for the men of 
Ulster. That house was not a small one. Seven doors in it and 
fifty beds between (every) two doors. Those were not faces of 
friends at a feast, the people who were in that house, for many of 
them had injured other. For three hundred years before the 
birth of Christ there had been war between them. 1 

" ' Let the pig be killed for them,' said Mac Datho." 

This celebrated pig had been fed for seven years on the 
milk of three score milch cows, and it was so huge that it took 
sixty men to draw it when slain. Its tail alone was a load for 
nine men. 

" ' The pig is good,' " said Conor, king of Ulster. 

"'It is good,'" said Oilioll, king of Connacht. 

Then there arose a difficulty about the dividing of the pig. 
As in the case of the " heroes bit " the best warrior was to 

x But especially since Fergus mac Roigh or Roy had deserted Ulster 
and gone over to Connacht on the death of Deirdre. 



OTHER SAGAS OF THE RED BRANCH 357 

divide it. King Oilioll asked King Conor what they should 
do about it, when suddenly the mischievous, ill-minded Bricriu 
spoke from a chamber overhead and asked, " How should it 
be divided except by a contest of arms seeing that all the 
valorous warriors of Connacht were there." 

" ' Let it be so/ said Oilioll. 

" ' We like it well,' said Conor, ' for we have lads in the house 
who have many a time gone round the border.' 

" ' There will be need of thy lads to-night, O Conor,' said a famous 
old warrior from Cruachna Conalath in the west. ' The roads of 
Luachra Ded id have often had their backs turned to them (as they 
fled). Many, too, the fat beeves they left with me.' 

" ' 'Twas a fat beef thou leftest with me,' said Munremar 
mac Gerrcind, ' even thine own brother, Cruithne mac Ruaidlinde 
from Cruachna Conalath of Connacht.' 

"' He was no better,' said Lewy mac Conroi, 'than Irloth, son of 
Fergus, son of Leite, who was left dead by Echbel, son of Dedad, 
at Tara Luachra.' 

" 'What sort of man do ye think,' said Celtchair mac Uthechair, 
' was Conganchnes, son of (that same) Dedad, who was slain by 
myself, and me to strike the head off him ? ' 

" Each of them brought up his exploits in the face of the other, 
till at last it came to one man who beat every one, even Cet 
mac Magach of Connacht. 1 

" He raised his prowess over the host, and took his knife in his 
hand, and sat down by the pig. ' Now let there be found,' said he, 
' among the men of Ireland one man to abide contest with me, or 
let me divide the pig.' 

" There was not at that time found a warrior of Ulster to stand up 
to him, and great silence fell upon them. 

" ' Stop that for me, O Laeghaire [Leary] ,' said Conor, [King of 
Ulster, i.e., ' Delay, if you can, Cet's dividing the pig '] . 



1 He is well known in the Ultonian saga. Keating describes him in 
his history as a " mighty warrior of the Connachtmen, and a fierce wolf 
of evil to the men of Ulster." It was he who gave King Conor the wound 
of which, after nine years, he died. He was eventually slain by Conall 
Cearnach as he was returning in a heavy fall of snow from a plundering 
excursion in Ulster, carrying three heads with him. See O'Mahony's 
Keating, p. 274, and Conall Cearnach was taken up for dead and brought 
away by the Connacht men after the fight, but recovered. This evidently 
formed the plot of another saga now I think lost. 



3$8 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

"Said Leary, 'It shall not be — Cct to divide the pig before the 
face of us all !' 

"'Wait a little, Leary,' said Cet, 'that thou mayest speak with 
me. For it is a custom with you men of Ulster that every youth 
among you who takes arms makes us his first goal. 1 Thou, too, 
didst come to the border, and thus leftest charioteer and chariot 
and horses with me, and thou didst then escape with a lance 
through thee. Thou shalt not get at the pig in that manner!' 

" Leary sat down upon his couch. 

" ' It shall not be,' said a tall, fair warrior of Ulster, coming out of 
his chamber above, 'that Cet divide the pig.' 

"'Who is this?' said Cet. 

" 'A better warrior than thou,' say all, 'even Angus, son of Hand- 
wail of Ulster.' 

" ' Why is his father called Hand- wail ? ' said Cet. 

" ' We know not indeed,' say all. 

" ' But I know,' said Cet ; ' once I went eastward (i.e., crossed the 
border into Ulster), an alarm-cry is raised around me, and Hand- 
wail came up with me, like every one else. He makes a cast of a 
large lance at me. I make a cast at him with the same lance, which 
struck off his hand, so that it was (i.e., fell) on the field before him. 
What brings the son of that man to stand up to me ? ' said Cet. 

" Then Angus goes to his couch. 

" ' Still keep up the contest,' said Cet, ' or let me divide the 

Pig-' 

" ' It is not right that thou divide it, O Cet,' said another tall, fair 

warrior of Ulster. 

" ' Who is this ? ' said Cet. 

" ' Owen Mor, son of Durthacht,' say all, ' king of Fernmag.' 3 

" ' I have seen him before,' said Cet. 

'"Where hast thou seen me,' said Owen. 

" ' In front of thine own house when I took a drove of cattle from 
thee ; the alarm cry was raised in the land around me, and thou 
didst meet me and didst cast a spear at me, so that it stood out of 
my shield. I cast the same spear at thee, which passed through thy 



1 This is what Cuchulain also does the day he assumes arms for the 
first time. The story of his doings on that day and his foray into 
Connacht as recited by Fergus to Oilioll and Meve forms one of the most 
interesting episodes of the Tain Bo Chuailgne. Every young Ultonian 
on assuming arms made a raid into Connacht. 

2 It was he who, in the oldest version of the Deirdre saga, slew Naoise, 
and it was to him Conor made Deirdre over at the end of a year. See 
above p. 317. 



OTHER SAGAS OF THE RED BRANCH 359 

head and struck thine eye out of thy head, and the men of Ireland 
see thee with one eye ever since.' 

"He sat down in his seat after that. 

" ' Still keep up the contest, men of Ulster/ said Cet, ' or let me 
divide the pig.' 

" ' Thou shalt not divide it,' said Munremar, son of Gerrcend. 

" ' Is that Munremar ? ' said Cet. 

" ' It is he,' say the men of Ireland. 

" ' It was I who last cleaned my hands in thee, O Munremar,' 
said Cet ; ' it is not three days yet since out of thine own land I 
carried off three warriors' heads from thee, together with the head 
of thy first son.' 

" Munremar sat down on his seat. 

" ' Still the contest/ said Cet, ' or I shall divide the pig.' 

" ' Verily thou shalt have it,' said a tall, grey, very terrible warrior 
of the men of Ulster. 

"' Who is this?' said Cet. 

" ' That is Celtchair, son of Uithechar/ say all. 

" ' Wait a little, Celtchair,' said Cet, ' unless thou comest to strike 
me. I came, O Celtchair, to the front of thy house. The alarm was 
raised around me. Every one went after me. Thou comest like 
every one else, and going into a gap before me didst throw a spear 
at me. I threw another spear at thee, which went through thy 
loins, nor has either son or daughter been born to thee since." 

" After that Celtchair sat down on his seat. 

" ' Still the contest/ said Cet, ' or I shall divide the pig.' 

" ' Thou shalt have it/ said Mend, son of Sword-heel. 

"'Who is this?' said Cet. 

" ' Mend,' say all. 

"'What! deem you,' said Cet, 'that the sons of churls with 
nicknames should come to contend with me ? for it was I was the 
priest, 1 who christened thy father by that name, since it is I that 
cut off his heel, so that he carried but one heel away with him. 
What should bring the son of that man to contend with me ? ' 

" Mend sat down in his seat. 

" ' Still the contest,' said Cet, ' or I shall divide the pig.' 

" ' Thou shalt have it,' said Cumscraidh, the stammerer of Macha, 
son of Conor. 

" ' Who is this ? ' 

" ' That is Cumscraidh/ say all. 

" He is the makings of a king, so far as his figure goes. . . . 

1 This phrase, introduced by a Christian reciter or copyist, need not in 
the least take away from the genuine pagan character of the whole. 



360 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

"'Well,' said Cet, 'thou madest thy first raid on us. We met on 

the bonier. 'Thou didst leave a third of thy people with me, and 
earnest away with a spear through thy throat, so that no word comes 
rightly over thy lips, since the sinews of thy throat were wounded, 
so that Cumscraidh, the stammerer of Macha, is thy name ever since.' 

" In that way he laid disgrace and a blow on the whole province. 

" While he made ready with the pig and had his knife in his 
hand, they see Conall Ccdrnach [the Victorious], coming towards 
them into the house. He sprang on to the floor of the house. 
The men of Ulster gave him great welcome. 'Twas then [King] 
Conor threw his helmet from his head and shook himself [for 
joy] in his own place. 'We are glad,' said Conall, 'that our 
portion is ready for us, and who divides for you ? ' said Conall. 

" One man of the men of Ireland has obtained by contest the 
dividing of it, to wit, Cet mac Magach. 

'"Is that true, Cet ?' said Conall, ' art thou dividing the pig ?' 

There follows here an obscure dialogue in verse between 
the warriors. 

" ' Get up from the pig, Cet,' said Conall. 

" ' What brings thee to it ? ' said Cet. 

"'Truly [for you] to seek contest from me,' said Conall, 'and I 
shall give you contest ; I swear what my people swear since I 
[first] took spear and weapons, I have never been a day without 
having slain a Connachtman, nor a night without plundering, nor 
have I ever slept without the head of a Connachtman under my 
knee.' 

" ' It is true,' said Cet, ' thou art even a better warrior than I, but if 
Anluan mac Magach [my brother] were in the house,' said Cet, ' he 
would match thee contest for contest, and it is a pity that he is not 
in the house this night.' 

" ' Aye, is he, though,' said Conall, taking the head of Anluan from 
his belt and throwing it at Cet's chest, so that a gush of blood broke 
over his lips. After that Conall sat down by the pig and Cet went 
from it. 

" ' Now let them come to the contest,' said Conall. 

" Truly there was not then found among the men of Connacht a 
warrior to stand up to him in contest, for they were loath to be slain 
on the spot. The men of Ulster made a cover around him with 
their shields, for there was an evil custom in the house, the people 
of one side throwing stones at the other side. Then Conall pro- 
ceeded to divide the pig, and he took the end of the tail in his 
mouth until he had finished dividing the pig." 



OTHER SAGAS OF THE RED BRANCH 361 

The men of Connacht, as might be expected, were not 
pleased with their share. The rest of the piece recounts the 
battle that ensued both in the hostelry, whence " seven streams 
of blood burst through its seven doors," and outside in the 
close or liss after the hosts had burst through the doors, the 
death of the hound, the flight of Oilioll and Meve into 
Connacht, and the curious adventures of their charioteer. 

The Conception of Cuchulain, 1 the Conception of Conor, 2 
the Wooing of Emer, 3 the Death of Conlaoch, 4 the 
Siege of Howth,5 the Intoxication of the Ultonians, 6 
Bricriu's Banquet,7 Emer's Jealousy and Cuchulain's Pining, 8 
the Battle of Rosnaree,9 Bricriu's Feast and the Exile 
of the Sons of Dael Dermuit, 10 Macha's Curse on the 

1 Windisch's " Irische Texte," Erste Serie, 134, and D'Arbois de 
Jubainville's " L'epopee Celtique en Irlande," p. 22. 

2 D'Arbois de Jubainville's " Epopee Celtique," p. 3. 

3 Translated by Kuno Meyer in "Revue Celtique," vol. xi., and "The 
Archaeological Review," vol. i., and Jubainvilles' " Epopee Celtique," p. 39. 

4 A poem published by Miss Brooke in her " Reliques of Irish Poetry," 
p. 393 of the 2nd Edition of 1816. There are fragmentary versions of it 
in the Edinburgh MSS. 65 and 62, published in Cameron's " Reliquiae 
Celticae," vol. i. pp. 112 and 161, and in the Sage Pope Collection from the 
recitation of a peasant about a hundred years ago, p. 393. The oldest 
form of the story is in the Yeliow Book of Lecan, and it has been studied 
in Jubainville's " Epopee Celtique," p. 52. 

5 Edited and translated by Stokes in the "Revue Celtique," vol. viii. 
p. 49. 

6 Translated by Hennessy for Royal Irish Academy, Todd Lecture, Ser. I. 

7 The text published by Windisch, " Irische Texte," I. p. 235, and 
translated by Jubainville in "Epopee Celtique," p. 81. 

8 The text published by Windisch, "Irische Texte,' I. p. 197, and by 
O'Curry in " Atlantis," vol. i. p. 362, with translation, and by Gilbert and 
O'Looney in " Facsimiles of National MSS. of Ireland." Translated into 
French by MM. Dottin, and Jubainville in "Epopee Celtique en Irlande," 
p. 174. 

9 Translated and edited by Rev. Edward Hogan, S.J., for the Royal 
Irish Academy, Todd, Lecture Series, vol. iv. 

10 The text edited by Windisch, " Irische Texte, Serie II., i. Heft, p. 
164, and translated by M. Maurice Grammont, in Jubainville's "Epopee 
Celtique en Irlande," p. 150. 



:,62 LITERACY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Ultonians, 1 the Death of King Conor, 2 the Wooing of 
Ferb,3 the Cattle Spoil of Dartaid,4 the Cattle Spoil of 
Flidais,4 the Cattle Spoil of Regamon,4 the Tain be Aingen, 
the Tain Bo Regamna,4 the Conception of the two Swine- 
herds^ the Deaths of Oilioll (King of Connacht) and Conall 
Cearnach, 6 the Demoniac Chariot of Cuchulain,7 the Cattle 
Spoil of Fraich, 8 are some of the most available of the 
many remaining sagas belonging to this cycle. 

1 Translated and edited by Windisch, "Dans les comptes rendus de la 
classe de philosophie et d' histoire de 1' Academie royale des sciences de 
Saxe," says M. d'Arbois de Jubainville, who gives a translation from 
Windisch's text at p. 320 of his " Epopee Celtique." 

2 Edited and translated by O'Curry in Lectures on the MS. Mat. p. 
637, and again by D'Arbois de Jubainville. 

3 Edited and translated by Windisch in " Irische Texte," Dritte Serie, 
Heft II., p. 445. 

4 These are short introductory stories to the Tain Bo Chuailgne ; 
they have been edited and translated by Windisch in " Irische Texte," 
Zweite Serie, Heft II., p. 185-255. 

s Edited and translated by Windisch, " Irische Texte," Dritte Serie, 
Heft I., p. 230, and translated into English by Alfred Nutt, in his " Voyage 
of Bran," vol. ii. p. 58. 

6 Translated and edited by Kuno Meyer in the " Zeitschrift fur Celtische 
Philologie," I Band, Heft I., p. 102. 

7 Edited by O'Beirne Crowe in the " Journal of the Royal Historical 
and Archaeological Association of Ireland," Jan., 1870. 

8 Edited by O'Beirne Crowe in " Proceedings of the Royal Irish 
Academy," 1871. 



CHAPTER XXIX 

THE FENIAN CYCLE 

Cuchulain's life and love and death entranced the ears of 
the great for many centuries, and into hundreds of bright eyes 
tears of pity had for a thousand years been conjured up by the 
pathetic tones of bards reciting the fate of her who perished 
for the son of Usnach. The wars of Meve and of Conor 
mac Nessa were household words in the hall of Muirchertach 
of the leather cloaks, and in the palace at the head of the weir 
— Brian Boru's Kincora. Whosoever loved what was great 
in conception, and admired the broad sweep of the epic called 
upon his bards to recite the loves, the wars, the valour, and 
the deaths of the Red Branch knights. 1 

But there was yet another era consecrated in story-telling, 
another age of history peopled by other characters, in which 
the households of many chieftains and some even of the chiefs 
themselves delighted. These are pictured in the romances that 
were woven around Conn of the Hundred Battles, his son Art 

1 Moore's genius has stereotyped amongst us the term Red Branch 
knight, which, however, has too much flavour of the mediaeval about it. 
The Irish is curadh, " hero." The Irish for " Knight " in the appellations 
White Knight, Knight of the Glen, etc., is Ridire (pronounced " Rid-ir-vS," 
in Connacht sometimes corruptly " Rud-ir-ya "), which is evidently the 
mediaeval " Ritter," i.e., Rider. 

3G3 



364 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

the Lonely, his grandson Cormac mac Art, and his great- 
grandson Cairbre or" the Liffey. This cycle of romance may 
be called the " Fenian " Cycle, as dealing to some extent with 
Finn mac Cumhail and his Fenian 1 militia, or the " Ossianic " 
Cycle since Ossian, Finn's son, is supposed to have been the 
author of many of the poems which belong to it. 

In point of time — as reckoned by the Irish annalists and 
historians — the men of the Fenian Cycle lived something over 
two hundred years later than those of the Cuchulain era 2 and 
in none of the romances do we see even the faintest confusion 
or sign of intermingling the characters belonging to the 
different cycles. One of the surest proofs — if proof were 
needed — that Macpherson's brilliant " Ossian " had no Gaelic 



1 Moore helped to bring this word into common use under the form of 
Finnian in his melody, " The wine-cup is circling in Alvin's hall." It is 
probable that he derived the word from Finn, and meant by it " followers 
of Finn mac Cool." The Irish word is Fiann (pronounced " Fee-an ") and 
has nothing to do with Finn mac Cumhail. In the genitive it is na Feine 
(na Fayna). It is a noun of multitude, and means the Fenian body in 
general. The individual Fenian was called Feinnidhe, i.e., a member of 
the Fenian force. The bands of militia were called Fianna [Fee-an-a], 
The word is declined An Fhiann, na Feinne, do'n Fheinn [In Eean, na 
Fayn-a, don Aen] and its resemblance to the proper name Finn is only 
accidental. The English translation of Keating made early in the last 
century, by Dermot O'Conor, does not use the term " Fenian" at all, but 
translates the word by "Irish Militia." Nor does O'Halloran, in 1778- 
when he published his history, seem to have known the term. The first 
person who appears to have used it is Miss Brooke, as early as 1796 : in 
her translation of some Ossianic pieces, I find the lines — 

" He cursed in rage the Fenian chief 
And all the Fenian race." 

I have been told that Macpherson had already used the word, but I have 
looked carefully through his Ossian and have not been able to find it. 
Halliday in his edition of Keating, in 1808, talks in a foot-note of " Fenian 
heroes." It was John O'Mahony the head-centre of the Irish Republican 
Brotherhood, a brilliant Irish scholar and translator of Keating, who 
succeeded in perpetuating the ancient historic memory by christening the 
" men of '68 " the " Fenians." 

2 Cormac mac Art came to the throne, a.d. 227, according to the " Four 
Masters " ; a.d. 213, according to Keating. 



THE FENIAN CYCLE 365 

original, is the way in which the men and events of the two 
separate cycles are jumbled together. 

As the war between Ulster and Connacht, which followed 
the death of the children of Usnach, is the great historic event 
which serves as basis to so many of the Red Branch romances, 
so the principal thread of history round which many of the 
Fenian stories are woven, is the gradual and slowly increasing 
enmity which proclaimed itself between the High-kings of 
Erin and their Fenian cohorts, resulting at last in the battle of 
Gabhra, the fall of the High-king, and the destruction of the 
Fenians. 

Thus in the battle of Cnucha is related how Cumhail x 
[Cool], the father of Finn, made war upon Conn of the 
Hundred Battles because he had raised Criomhthan of the 
Yellow Hair to the throne of Leinster, and how he obtained 
the aid of the Munster princes in the war. At the battle of 
Cnucha or Castleknock, near Cool's rath — now Rathcoole 
some ten miles from Dublin — Cool was routed and slain by 
the celebrated Connacht champion Aedh mac Morna, who 
lost an eye in the battle and was thenceforth called Goll 
(or the blind) 2 mac Morna. Many of the Munster Fenians 
followed Cool in this battle, and we find here the broadening 
rift between the Fenians of Munster and of Connacht which 
ultimately tended to bring about the dissolution of the whole 
body. 

Again we find in the fine tale called the Battle of Moy 
Muchruime how Finn, through spite at his father Cool being 
thus killed by Conn of the Hundred Battles, kept out of the 
way when Conn's son Art was fighting the great battle of 
Moy Muchruime and gave him no assistance. 

And again it was partly because Finn kept out of the way 
on that occasion that Conn's great-grandson fought the battle 

x Sec p. 258, note 1. 

2 The word is long obsolete. Goll is a stock character in Fenian 
folk-lore, a kind of Ajax. 



366 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

of Gabhra against Finn's son Ossian and his grandson Oscar, a 
battle which put an end to Fenian power for ever. 

Of many of these tales we find two redactions, that of the 
old vellum MSS. and that of the modern paper ones, the latter 
being as a rule much longer and more decorative. Here, for 
instance, is the later version of one passage out of many which 
is slurred over or disregarded in the old one 1 ; it is the sailing of 
Cumhail, Finn's father, to Ireland to take the throne of Leinster. 
I translate this from a modern manuscript of the battle of 
Cnucha, in my own possession, as a good instance of the 
decorative, and in places inflated style of the later redactions 
of many of the Fenian sagas. 

THE SAILING OF CUMHAIL. 

" Now the place where Cumhail chanced to be at that time was 
between the islands of Alba and the deserts of Fionn-Lochlan, for 
he was hunting and deer-stalking there. And the number of those 
who were with the over-throwing hero Cumhail in that place, was thrice 
fifty champions of his own near men. And he heard at that time 
that his country was left without any good king to defend it, and that 
Cathaoir Mor [king of Leinster] had fallen in the pen of battle, and 
that there was no hero to keep the country. Thereupon, those 
chieftains were of a mind to proceed unto the isolated green isle of 
Erin, there to maintain with valour and might the red-hand province 
of Leinster. And joyfully they proceeded straight forwards towards 
their ship. 2 

" And there they quickly and expeditiously launched the towering, 



1 Contained in the Leabhar na h-Uidhre, a volume copied about the 
year noo, and printed in " Revue Celtique," vol. ii. p. 86. 

2 With this thunderous description, all sound and fury, and signifying 
very little, compare the Homeric description of a like scene, clear, accurate, 
cut like a gem : 

rolaiv o'lKfitvov ovpov lei tKaepyog 'ArroXXiov, 
ot oiarov GTt'ivavr', dvet 9' icrrLa Xevku. wkraauav' 
tv odvefiog Trpricrsv jxkvov lariov, d[X(j)i Sk KV/xa 
GTEipyj 7rop(j)vpeov /xeyaX' i'a%e, vrjbg lovrri]g' 
't] 8' Weev Kara KV/xa, 8ia7rpi)crcrov(Ta ice.XivOa. 

Iliad I., p. 480. 
Rut the Irish passage, though quoted here to exemplify a common 
feature of the Fenian tales, really dates from a time of decadence. 



THE FENIAN CYCLE 367 

wide-wombed, broad-sailed bark, the freighted full-wide, fair-broad, 
firm-roped vessel, and they grasped their shapely well-formed broad- 
bladed, well-prepared oars, and they made a powerful sea-great, 
dashing, dry-quick rowing over the broad hollow-deep, full-foamed, 
pools [of the sea], and over the vast-billowed, vehement, hollow- 
broken rollers, so that they shot their shapely ships under the 
penthouse of each fair rock in the shallows nigh to the rough- 
bordered margin of the Eastern lands, over the unsmooth, great- 
forming, lively-waved arms of the sea, so that each fierce, broad, 
constant-foaming, bright-spotted, white-broken drop that the heroes 
left upon the sea-pool with that rapid rowing, formed [themselves] 
like great torrents upon soft mountains. 

" When that valiant powerful company perceived the moaning of 
the loud billow-waves and the breaking forth of the ocean from her 
barriers, and the swelling of the abyss from her places, and the loud 
convulsion of the sea from her smooth streams, it was then they 
hoisted the variegated, tough-cordaged, sharp-pointed mast with 
much speed. And when the great foundation-blasts of the angry 
wind touched the even upright-standing, sword-straight masts, and 
when the huge-flying, loud-voiced, broad-bordered sails swallowed 
the wind attacking them suddenly with sharp voice, that stout, 
strong, active, powerful crew rose up promptly and quickly, and 
f.very one went straight to his work with speed and promptitude, and 
they stretched forth their ready courageous, white-coloured, brown- 
nailed hands most valiantly to the tackling, till they let the wind in 
loud, sharp, fast, voice-bursts into the shrouds of the mast, so that 
the ship gave an eager, very quick, vigorous leap forward, right 
straight into the salt-ocean, till they arrived in the delightfully-clear, 
cold-pooled, querulously-whistling, joyfully-calling reaches of the 
sea, and the dark sea rose speedily around them in desperate-daring 
floodful doisleana, in hardly-separated ridges and in rough-grey, 
proud-tongued, gloomy-grim, blue-capacious valleys, and in im- 
petuous shower-topped wombs [of water] ; and the great merriment 
of the cold wind was answered by the chieftains, strong-workingly, 
stout-enduringly, truly-powerfulry, and they proceeded to manage 
and attend the high-ocean, until at last the strong and powerful sea 
overcame the intention of the high wind, and the murmur and giddy 
voice of the deep was humbled by that great rowing, till the sea became 
restful, smooth, and very calm behind them, until they took port and 
harbour at Inver Cholpa, which is at this time called Drogheda." 

The stories about Cormac mac Art, his grandfather Conn 
of the Hundred Battles, and his son Cairbre of the Liffey, 



36S LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

which arc numerous, arc mostly more or less connected with 
the Fenians, and may, as they deal with the same era and the 
same characters, be conveniently classed along with the Fenian 
sagas. One of the best known of these sas;as is the Battle of 
Moy Leana 1 in which Conn of the Hundred Battles slew his 
rival Owen, who had forced from him half his kino-dom. 
Owen had lived for six years in Spain, and had married a 
daughter of the Spanish king. At the end of this time he 
was seized with great home-sickness and he proposed to 
return to Ireland. When his father-in-law heard this, he said 
to him : — 

" If that Erin of which you speak, Owen, were a thing easily 
moved, we would deem it easier to send the soldiers and 
warriors of Spain with you thither to cut it from its foundation 
and lay it on wheels and carry it after our ships and place it a 
one angle of Spain "■ — -a grandiloquent speech which Owen did 
not relish ; " He did not receive it with satisfaction, and it was 
not sweet to him," says the saga. 

The King perceived this however, and offered him just what 
he wanted, two thousand warriors to help him and his exiles in 
acquiring the kingdom. The account of their embarcation 
and voyage is perhaps as good a specimen of exaggerated 
verbosity and of the rhetoric of the professed story-teller as 
any other in these sagas, which abound with such things, 
and it is perhaps worth while to give it at length. It will 
be seen that the story-teller or prose-poet, passes everything 
through the prism of his imagination, and aided by an extra- 
ordinary exuberance of vocabulary and unbounded wealth c*. 1 
alliterative adjectives, wraps the commonest objects in a hur- 
ricane of — to use his own phrase — " misty-dripping " epithet. 
The Battle of Moy Leana is recorded in the Annals of Ulster, 
by Flann in the eleventh century, and by the Book of Leinster, 
and no doubt the essence of the saga is very ancient, but the 

1 Published by Eugene O'Curry for the Celtic Society. I adhere to his 
admirable, and at the same time perfectly literal, translation. 



THE FENIAN CYCLE 369 

dressing-up of it, and especially the passage I am about to quote, 
is, in its style — not to speak of the language which is modern — 
almost certainly post-Norman. 

THE SAILING OF OWEN MOR. 

"Then that vindictive unmerciful host went forward to the 
harbours and ports where their vessels and their sailing ships 
awaited them ; and they launched their terrible wonderful mon- 
sters ; their black, dangerous, many-coloured ships ; their smooth, 
proper-sided, steady, powerful scuds, and their cunningly-stitched 
Laoidheangs from their beds and from their capacious, full-smooth 
places, out of the cool clear-winding creeks of the coast, and from the 
calm, quiet, well-shaped, broad-headed harbours, and there were 
placed upon every swift-going ship of them free and accurately 
arranged tiers of fully-smoothed, long-bladed oars, and they made a 
harmonious, united, co-operating, thick-framed, eager-springing, 
unhesitating, constant-going rowing against currents and wild 
tempests, so that loud, haughty, proud-minded, were the responses 
of the stout, fierce-fronted, sportive-topped billows in conversing 
with the scuds and beautiful prows." 

"The dark, impetuous, proud, ardent waters became as white- 
streaked, fierce-rolling, languid-fatigued Leibhiona, upon which to 
cast the white-flanked, slippery, thick, straight-swimming salmon, 
among the dark-prowling, foamy-tracked heads [of sea monsters] 
from off the brown oars. 

" And upon that fleet, sweeping with sharp rapidity from the sides 
and borders of the territories, and from the shelter of the lands, and 
from the calm quiet of the shores, they could see nothing of the 
globe on their border near them, but the high, proud, tempestuous 
waves of the abyss, and the rough, roaring shore, shaking and 
quivering, and the very-quick, swift motion of the great wind 
coming upon them, and long-swelling, gross-springing, great billows 
rising over the swelling sides of the [sea] valleys, and the savage, 
dangerous, shower-crested sea, maintaining its strength against the 
rapid course of the vessels over the expanse, until at last it became 
exhausted, subdued, drizzling and misty, from the conflict of the 
waves and fierce winds. 

" The labouring crews derived increased spirits from the bounding 
of the swift ships over the wide expanse, and the wind coming from 
the rear, directly fair for the brave men, they arose manfully and 
vigorously to their work, and lashed the tough, new masts to the 
brown, smooth, ample, commodious bulwarks, without weakness, 

2 A 



3;o LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

without spraining, without overstraining. Those ardent, expert 
Crews put their hands to the long linen [sails] without shrinking, 
without mistake, from Eibhil to Achtuaim, and the swift-going, long, 
capacious ships, passed from the hand-force of the warriors, and over 
the deep, wet, murmuring pools of the sea, and past the winding, 
bending, fierce-showery points of the harbours, and over the high- 
torrented, ever-great mountains of the brine, and over the heavy, 
listless walls of the great waves, and past the dark, misty-dripping 
hollows of the shores, and past the saucy, thick-flanked, spreading, 
white-crested currents of the streams, and over the spring-tide, con- 
tentions, furious, wet, overwhelming fragments of the cold ocean, until 
the sea became rocking like a soft, fragrant, proud-bearing plain, swell- 
ing and heaving to the force of the anger and fury of the cold winds. 

" The upper elements quickly perceived the anger and fury of the 
sea growing and increasing. Woe indeed was it to have stood 
between those two powers, the sea and the great wind when mutually 
attacking each other, and contending at the sides of strong ships and 
stout-built vessels and beautiful scuds. So that the sea was in 
showery-tempestuous, growling, wet, fierce, loud, clamorous, dan- 
gerous stages after them, whilst the excitement of the murmuring 
dark-deeded wind continued in the face and in the sluices of the 
ocean from its bottom to its surface. And tremulous, listless, long- 
disjointed, quick-shattering, ship-breaking, was the effect of the dis- 
turbance, and treacherous the shivering of the winds and the rolling 
billows upon the swift barks, for the tempest did not leave them a 
plank unshaken, nor a hatch unstarted, nor a rope unsnapped, nor a 
nail unstrained, nor a bulwark unendangered, nor a bed unshattered, 
nor a lifting uncast-down, nor a mast unshivered, nor a yard untwisted, 
nor a sail untorn, nor a warrior unhurt, nor a soldier unterrified, nor 
a noble unstunned — excepting the ardour and sailorship of the brave 
men who attended to the attacks and howlings of the fierce wind. 

" However, now, when the wind had exhausted its valour and had 
not received reverence nor honour from the sea, it went forward, 
stupid and crestfallen, to the uppermost regions of its residence ; 
and the sea was fatigued from its roarings and drunken murmurings, 
and the wild billows ceased their motions, so that spirit returned to 
the nobles and strength to the hosts, and activity to the warriors, and 
strength to the champions. And they sailed onwards in that order 
without delay or accident until they reached the sheltered smooth 
harbour of Cealga and the shore of the island of Greagraidhe." 

Who or what the Fenians were, has °;iven rise to the Greatest 
diversity of opinion. The school of Mr. Nutt and Professor 



THE FENIAN CYCLE 371 

Rhys would, I fancy, recognise in them nothing but tribal 
deities, euhemerised or regarded as men. 1 Dr. Skene and Mr. 
Mac Ritchie believed that they were an altogether separate 
race of men from the Gaels, probably allied to, or identical with, 
the Picts of history ; and the latter holds that they are the sidhe 
[shee] or fairy folk of the Gaels. The native Irish, on the 
other hand, who were perfectly acquainted with the Picts, and 
tell us much about them, have always regarded the Fenians as 
being nothing more or less than a body of janissaries or standing 
troops of Gaelic and Firbolg families, maintained during several 
reigns by the Irish kings, a body which tended to become 
hereditary. Nor is there in this account anything inherently 
impossible or improbable, especially as the Fenian regime 
synchronises with a time when the Irish were probably 
aggressively warlike. Keating, writing in Irish about the year 
1630, gives the traditional account of them as he gathered it 
from ancient books and other authorities now lost, and this 
certainly preserves some ancient and unique traits. He begins 



1 Mr. Nutt seems to believe that the whole groundwork of the Fenian 
talcs is mythical. His position with regard to them is fairly summed up 
in this extract from his note on Mac Innes' Gaelic stories. " Every Celtic 
tribe," he writes, " possessed traditions both mythical and historical, the 
former of substantially the same character, the latter necessarily varying. 
Myth and history acted and reacted upon each other, and produced heroic 
saga which may be defined as myth tinged and distorted by history. The 
largest element is as a rule suggested by myth, so that the varying heroic 
sagas of the various portions of a race, have always a great deal in common. 
These heroic sagas, together with the official or semi-official mythologies 
of the pre-Christian Irish are the subject-matter of the Annals. They were 
thrown into a purely artificial chronological shape by men familiar with 
biblical and classical history. A framework was thus created into which 
the entire mass of native legend was gradually fitted, whilst the genealogies 
of the race were modelled, or it may be remodelled in accord with it. In 
studying the Irish sagas we may banish entirely from our mind all ques- 
tions as to the truth of the early portions of the Annals. The subject 
matter of the latter is mainly mythical, the mode in which it has been 
treated is literary. What residuum of historic truth may still survive can 
be but infinitesimal." (Sec Mr. Nutt's valuable essay on Ossianic or 
Fenian Saga in " Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition," vol. ii. p. 399.) 



34 - 



LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 



by rejecting the ridiculous stories told about them, such as the 
battle of Ventrv and the like, as well as the remarks of 
Campion and of Buchanan, who in his history of Scotland 
had called Finn a giant. 

"It is proved," writes Keating, "that their persons were of no 
extraordinary size compared with the men that lived in their own 
times, and moreover that they were nothing more than members of 
a body of buanadha or retained soldiers, maintained by the Irish 
kings for the purpose of guarding their territories and of upholding 
their authority therein. It is thus that captains and soldiers are at 
present maintained by all modern kings for the purpose of defending 
their rule and guarding their countries. 

" The members of the Fenian Body lived in the following manner. 
They were quartered on the people from November Day till May 
Day, and their duty was to uphold justice and to put down injustice 
on the part of the kings and lords of Ireland, and also to guard the 
harbours of the country from the oppression of foreign invaders. 
After that, from May till November, they lived by hunting and the 
chase, and by performing the duties demanded of them by the kings 
of Ireland, such as preventing robberies, exacting fines and tributes, 
putting down public enemies, and every other kind of evil that might 
afflict the country. In performing these duties they received a 
certain fixed pay. . . . 

" However, from May till November the Fenians had to content 
themselves with game, the product of their own hunting, as this 
[right to hunt] was their maintenance and pay from the kings 
of Ireland. That is, the warriors had the flesh of the wild animals 
for their food, and the skins for wages. During the whole day, from 
morning till night they used to eat but one meal, and of this it was 
their wont to partake towards evening. About noon they used 
to send whatever game they had killed in the morning by their 
attendants to some appointed hill where there were wood and moor- 
land close by. There they used to light immense fires, into which 
they put a large quantity of round sandstones. They next dug two 
pits in the yellow clay of the moor, and having set part of the venison 
upon spits to be roasted before the fire they bound up the remainder 
with sugans — ropes of straw or rushes — in bundles of sedge, and then 
placed them to be cooked in one of the pits they had previously dug. 
There they set the stones which they had before this heated in the 
fire, round about them, and kept heaping them upon the bundles of 
meat until they had made them seethe freely, and the meat had 
become thoroughly cooked. From the greatness of these fires it has 



THE FENIAN CYCLE 373 

resulted that their sites are still to be recognised in many parts of 
Ireland by their burnt blackness. It is they that are commonly 
called Fualachta na bhFiann, or the Fenians' cooking-spots. 

" As to the warriors of the Fenians, when they were assembled at 
he place where their fires had been lighted, they used to gather 
round the second of those pits of which we have spoken above, and 
there every man stripped himself to his skin, tied his tunic round his 
waist, and then set to dressing his hair and cleansing his limbs, thus 
ridding himself of the sweat and soil of the day's hunt. Then they 
began to supple their thews and muscles by gentle exercise, loosening 
them by friction, until they had relieved themselves of all sense 
of stiffness and fatigue. When they had finished doing this they sat 
down and ate their meal. That being over, they set about con- 
structing their fiann-bhotha or hunting-booths, and preparing their 
beds, and so put themselves in train for sleep. Of the following three 
materials did each man construct his bed, of the brushwood of the 
forest, of moss, and of fresh rushes. The brushwood was laid next 
the ground, over it was placed the moss, and lastly fresh rushes were 
spread over all. It is these three materials that are designated in our 
old romances as the tri Cuilcedha na bhFiann — the three Beddings of 
the Fenians." 

Every man who entered the Fenian ranks had four geasa 
[gassa, i.e. y tabus] laid upon him, 

" The first, never to receive a portion with a wife, but to choose 
her for good manners and virtues ; the second, never to offer violence 
to any woman ; the third, never to refuse any one for anything he 
might possess ; the fourth, that no single warrior should ever flee 
before nine [i.e., before less than ten] champions." 

There was a curious condition attached to entrance into the 
brotherhood which rendered it necessary that 

" Both his father and mother, his tribe, and his relatives should 
first give guarantees that they should never make any charge against 
any person for his death. This was in order that the duty of aveng- 
ing his own blood [wounds] should rest with no man other than 
himself, and in order that his friends should have nothing to claim 
with respect to him however great the evils inflicted upon him." 

All the Fenians were obliged to know the rules of poetry, 1 

x " Of all these," says, with true Celtic hyperbole, the fifteenth-century 
vellum in the British Museum, marked " Egerton, 17S2," " nut a man was 



374 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

for no figure in Irish antiquity, layman or cleric, could ever 
arrive at the rank of a popular hero unless he could compose, 
or at least appreciate a poem. 

The Fenian tales and poems are extraordinarily numerous, 
but their conception and characteristics are in general distinctly 
different from those relating to the Red Branch. They have 
not the same sweep, the same vastness and stature, the same 
weirdness, as the older cycle. The majority of them are more 
modern in conception and surroundings. There is little or no 
mention of the war chariot which is so important a factor in 
the older cvcle. The Fenians fought on foot or horseback, 
and we meet, too, frequent mention of helmets and mail-coats, 
which are post-Danish touches. Things are on a smaller 
scale. Exaggeration does not run all through the stories, but 
is confined to small parts of them, and it is set oft by much 
that is trivial or humorous. 

The Fenian stories became in later times the distinctlv 
popular ones. They were far more of the people and for the 



taken until he was a prime poet versed in the twelve books of poetry. No 
man was taken till in the ground a large hole had been made such as to 
reach the fold of his belt, and he put into it with his shield and a forearm's 
length of a hazel stick. Then must nine warriors having nine spears, 
with a ten furrows' width between them and him, assail him, and in 
concert let fly at him. If he were then hurt past that guard of his, he was 
not received into the Fian-ship. Not a man of them was taken until his 
hair had been interwoven into braids on him, and he started at a run 
through Ireland's woods, while they seeking to wound him followed in his 
wake, there having been between him and them but one forest bough by 
way of interval at first. Should he be overtaken he was wounded and not 
received into the Fian-ship after. If his weapons had quivered in his 
hand he was not taken. Should a branch in the wood have disturbed 
anything of his hair out of its braiding he was not taken. If he had 
cracked a dry stick under his foot [as he ran] he was not accepted. 
Unless that [at full speed] he had both jumped a stick level with his 
brow, and stooped to pass under one on a level with his knee, he was not 
taken. Unless also without slackening his pace he could with his nail 
extract a thorn from his foot he was not taken into the Fian-ship. But if 
he performed all this he was of Finn's people." (Sec " Silva Gadelica," 
p. ioo of English vol.) 



THE FENIAN CYCLE 375 

people than those of the Red Branch. They were most 
intimately bound up with the life and thought and feelings of 
the whole Gaelic race, high and low, both in Ireland and 
Scotland, and the development of Fenian saga, for a period of 
1,200 or 1,500 years, is one of the most remarkable examples 
in the world of continuous literary evolution. I use the word 
evolution advisedly, for there was probably not a century from 
the seventh to the eighteenth in which new stories, poems, and 
redactions of sao-as concerning Finn and the Fenians were not 
invented and put in circulation, while to this very day many 
stories never committed to manuscript are current about them 
amongst the Irish and Scotch Gaelic-speaking populations. 
We have found no such steady interest evinced by the people 
in the Red Branch romances, and in attempting to collect 
Irish folk-lore I have found next to nothing about Cuchulain 
and his contemporaries, but great quantities about Finn, 
Ossian, Oscar, Goll, and Conan. The one cycle, then, antique 
in tone, language, and surroundings, was, I suspect, that of the 
chiefs, the great men, and the bards; the other — at least in later 
times — more that of the un-bardic classes and of the people.. 

I do not mean to say that many of the Cuchulain stories 
were not copied into modern MSS. and circulated freely among 
the people all over Ireland during the eighteenth century 
and the beginning of this, especially Cuchulain's training, 
Conlaoch's (his son's) death, the Fight at the Ford, and others, 
but these appear never to have put out shoots and blossoms 
from themselves and to have generated new and yet again new 
stories as did the ever-youthful Fenian tales ; nor do they 
appear to have equally entwined themselves at this day round 
the popular imagination. 

A striking instance of how the Ossianic tale continued to 
develop down to the eighteenth century was supplied me the 
other day when examining the Reeves Collection. 1 I there 

1 These MSS. volumes, fifty-four in number, had most of them belonged 
to Mr. MacAdam, editor of the " Ulster Journal of Archaeology," from 



376 LITERARY' HISTORY OF IRELAND 

came upon a story in a Louth MS., written, I think, in the 
last century, which seemed to me to contain one of the latest 
developments of Ossianic saga. It is called " The Adventures 
of Dubh mac Deaghla," and tells us of how a prophet was 
born of the race of Eiremoin, "and all say," adds the writer, 
" that it was he was the druid who prophesied to Fiacha 
Sreabhtainne that he should fall in the battle of Dubh-Cumair 
by the three brothers, Cairioll, Muircath, and Aodh." He 
also " prophesied to the race of Tuathal that Cairbre of the 
Liffey was that far- branching tree which was to spread round 
about through the great circuit of Erin, around which smote 
the powerful wind from the south-west, overthrowing it wholly 
to the ground — which wind meant the Fenians, as had been 
announced by the smith's daughter." 1 The Fenians it seems 
heard that this Torna had prophesied about them and intended 
to kill him, and he and his family had to emigrate to Britain. 
From there he sends a letter in true epistolary style to an old 
friend of his, one Conor son of Dathach, beginning " Dear 
Friend " — an evident mark of seventeenth or possibly eighteenth 
century authorship, for there are no letters written in this 
style in the older literature, and this piece evidently follows a 

whom Bishop Reeves bought them. On the lamented death of that great 
scholar they were put up to auction, when the Royal Irish Academy 
bought some thirty volumes, the rest unfortunately were allowed to be 
scattered again to the four winds of heaven. For his exertions and 
generosity in securing even so many of these MSS., especially those which 
at first sight looked least important, but which contained treasures of 
folk-lore and folk-song, the Hon. Treasurer, the Rev. Maxwell Close, has 
placed Irish-speaking Ireland under yet another debt of gratitude to him. 
It is not always that which is most ancient which is most valuable from a 
literary or a national point of view. The pity of it is that any Irish MS. 
that comes into the market should not be bought up for the nation with 
the money assigned by the Government and confided to the Royal Irish 
Academy for Irish studies, unless a special search should show that 
the Academy already possesses a copy of each piece in it. I am convinced 
that many hundreds or thousands of pieces have been through neglect to 
do this irreparably lost to the nation. Oh the pity of it ! 

1 This is in allusion to the romance of Moy Muchruime, where we read 
of the prophecy and what followed. For Cairbre see above, p. 32. 



THE FENIAN CYCLE 377 

Latin or a Spanish, or possibly an English model. However 
this may be, Torna's letter asks Conor for news of the situation, 
and in time receives the following answer : 

" To Toma son of Dubh, our dear friend in Glen Fuinnse in 
Britain in Saxony. 

" Thy affectionate missive was read by me as soon as it arrived, 
and it had been a cause of joy to me, were it not for the way we are 
in at Tara at this moment. 

" For we never felt until the Munster Fenians came and encamped 
at the marsh of Old Raphoe and Treibhe to the south-west; the 
warriors of Leinster also and Baoisgnidh, together with Clan Ditribh 
and Clan Boirchne, were to the south of them, towards the bottom 
of the stream of Gabhra and on the west towards the old fort of 
Meve ; and that same evening the King having received an account 
of the encamping of the Fenians urges messengers secretly to 
Connacht to the Clan of Conal Cruachna that they might come, 
along with all the king's friends from the western border of Erin ; 
and other messengers he despatches to Scotland for the Clan of 
Garaidh Glunmhar, desiring Oscar of the blue Javelin, Aodh, Argal, 
and Airtre to come from abroad without delay, and that secretly. 

" On the early morning of the morrow, before the stars of the air 
retired, the King urged the druids of Tara against the Fenians to 
argue with them, and ask what was the cause of their rebelling in 
this guise, or who it was with whom they had now come to do 
battle, because they appeared not in habiliments of peace or friend- 
ship, but a flush of anger appeared in the face and countenance of 
every several man of them. 

" ' And there is another unlawful thing of which ye are guilty,' 
said the druids, ' which shows that ye have broken the vow of 
allegiance and obedience to your king, in that ye have come in array 
and garb of battle to the door of his fortress without receiving his 
leave or advice, without giving him notice or warning. To what 
point of the compass do ye travel, or on what have ye set your 
mind [that ye act not] as is the right and due of a prince's subjects, 
and as was always before this the habitude of the bands that came 
before ye ; and as shall last with honest people till the end of the 
world.' 

" However, now the druids are a-preaching to them and casting at 

I them bold storm-showers of reproofs by way of retarding them till 

the coming back of the messengers who went abroad, for Mac Cool 

is not amongst them to excite them against us, and we hope that 



378 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

they will remain thus until help come to us. For this is the eleventh 
day since the druids went from us, and our watchmen who observe 
what approaches and what goes, disclose all tidings to us, and they 
are ever a-listening to the loud argument of the druids and the 
captains against one another. Moreover, the desire of the Fenians 
to make a rapid assault upon Tara is the less from their having heard 
that Cairbre was gone on his royal round to Dun Sreabhtainne to 
visit Fiacha, 1 though he is really not gone there, but to a certain 
place under cover of night with his women and the royal jewels of 
Tara. And it was lucky for him that he did not go to Dun Sreabh- 
tainne, for the Fenians had sent Cairioll and nine mighty men with 
him to plunder Dun Sreabhtainne. In that, however, they mis- 
carried, for his tutor was gone off before that with Fiacha, by order 
of the King, to the same place where the women were. That, how- 
ever, we shall pursue no further at present. 

" But it is easy for you who are knowledgeable to form a judgment 
upon the state in which the inhabitants of a country must be, over 
which such a whelming calamity is about to fall. Let me leave off. 
And here we send our affectionate greeting to you, and to you all, 
with the hope of some time seeing you in full health, but I have 
small hope of it. 

" From your faithful friend till death, Conor, son of Dathach in 
Tara, the royal fortress of Erin. Written the 20th day of the 
month of March in the year of the age of the world . . . 
[The figures in the MS. are not legible]. 

The romance, which is a long one, is chiefly occupied 
with events relating to the family of Dubh mac Deaghla in 
Britain. But later on in the book the Conor who despatched 
this letter turns up and gives in person a most vivid description of 
the Battle of Gowra, and the events which followed his letter. 

I have only instanced and quoted from this comparatively 
unimportant story, as showing one of the very latest develop- 
ments of Fenian literature, and as proving how thoroughly even 
the seventeenth and eighteenth century Gaels were imbued 

1 Fiacha was the King's son, and succeeded him in the sovereignty. He 
was finally slain by his nephews, the celebrated Three Collas — they who 
afterwards burned Emania and caused the Ultonian dynasty and the Red 
Branch knights, after a duration of more than seven hundred years, to set 
in blood and flame, never to rise again. 



THE FENIAN CYCLE 379 

with, and realised the spirit of, the Fenian Cycle, and also as a 
peculiar specimen of what rarely happens in literature, but is 
always of great interest when it does happen — a specimen of 
unconscious saga developing into semi-conscious romance. 

There are comparatively few ancient texts belonging to the 
Finn saga, compared with the wealth of old vellum books that 
contain the Red Branch stories. There is, however, quite 
enough of documentary proof to show that so early as the 
seventh century Finn was looked on as a popular hero. 

The actual data that we have to go upon in estimating 
the genesis and development of the Fenian tales have been 
lucidly collected by Mr. Nutt. They are, as far as is known 
at present, as follows. Gilla Caemhain, the poet who died in 
1072, says that it was fifty-seven years after the battle of Moy 
Muchruime that Finn was treacherously killed " by the spear 
points of Urgriu's three sons." 1 This would make Finn's 

1 " There were many among the Fenians," says Keating, " who were 
more remarkable for their personal prowess, their valour, and their 
corporeal stature than Finn. The reason why he was made king of the 
Fiann, and set over the warriors, was simply because his father and grand- 
father had held that position before him. Another reason also why he had 
been made king of the Fiann was because he excelled his contemporaries 
in intellect and learning, in wisdom and in subtlety, and in experience and 
hardihood in battlefields. It was for these qualities that he was made 
king of the Fiann, and not for his personal prowess or for the great size 
or strength of his body." 

" Warrior better than Finn," says an old vellum MS. in the British 
Museum, " never struck his hand into chiefs, inasmuch as for service he 
was a soldier, a hospitaller for hospitality, and in heroism a hero. In 
fighting functions he was a fighting man, and in strength a champion 
worthy of a king, so that ever since and from that until this, it is with 
Finn that every such is co-ordinated." 

And in another place the same vellum says, " A good man verily was he 
who had those Fianna, for he was the seventh king ruling Ireland, that is 
to say, there were five kings of the provinces, and the King of Ireland, he 
being himself the seventh conjointly with the King of all Ireland." 

In a MS. saga in my own possession, called "The Pursuit of Sadhbh 
(Sive)," there is an amusing account of the truculcnce of the Fenians 
about their exclusive right of hunting, and the way they terrorised the 
people they were quartered on, but I have not space for this extract. 



38o LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

death take place in 252, for Moy Muchruime was fought i 
according to the " Four Masters " in a.d. 195. Tighearnach 
the Annalist, who died in 1088, writes that Finn was killed in 
a.d. 283, " by Aichleach, son of Duibhdrean, and the sons of 
Urgriu of the Luaighni of Tara, at Ath-Brea upon the Boyne." 
The poet Cinaeth O Hartagain, who died in a.d. 985, wrote : 
" By the Fiann of Luagne was the death of Finn at Ath-Brea 
upon the Boyne." All these men in the tenth and eleventh 
centuries certainly believed in Finn as implicitly as they did in 
King Cormac. 

The two oldest miscellaneous Irish MSS. which we have, 
are the Leabhar na h-Uidhre and the Book of Leinster. The 
Leabhar na h-Uidhre was compiled from older MSS. towards 
the close of the eleventh century, and the Book of Leinster 
some fifty years later. The oldest of them contains a copy of 
the famous poem ascribed to Dalian Forgaill in praise of St, 
Columcille, which was so obscure in the middle of the eleventh 
century that it required to be glossed. In this gloss, made 
perhaps in the eleventh century, perhaps long before, there is 
an explanatory poem on winter, ascribed to Finn, grandson of 
Baoisgne, that is our Finn mac Cool, and in the same com- 
mentary we find an explanation of the words " diu "=long, and 
"derc"— eye, in proof of which this verse is quoted, " As 
Grainne," says the commentator, " daughter of Cormac, said to 
Finn." 

" There lives a man 
On whom I would love to gaze long, 
For whom I would give the whole world, 
O Son of Mary ! though a privation ! " 

This verse, quoted as containing two words which required 
explanation in or before the eleventh century, pre-supposes the 
story of Diarmuid and Grainne. In addition to this we have 
the apparently historical story of the " Cause of the Battle of 
Cnucha." We have also the story of the Mongan, an Ulster 
king of the seventh century, according to the annalists who 



THE FENIAN CYCLE 381 

declared that he was not what men took him to be, the son of 
the mortal Fiachna, but of the god Mananan mac Lir, and a 
re-incarnation of the great Finn, and calls back from the grave 
the famous Fenian, Caoilte, who proves it. This account is 
strongly relied upon by Mr. Nutt to prove the wild mytho- 
logical nature of the Finn storv, but it is by no means unique 
in Irish literature, for we find the celebrated Tuan mac Cairrill 
had a second birth also, and the great Cuchulain too has his 
parentage ascribed to the god Lugh, not to Sualtach, his 
reputed father. Consequently, supposing Finn to have been 
a real historical character of the third century, there would be 
nothing absolutely extraordinary in the story arising in half 
pagan times that Mongan, also an historical character, was a 
re-incarnation of Finn. 

In the second oldest miscellaneous manuscript, the Book of 
Leinster, the references to Finn and the Fenians are much 
more numerous, containing three poems ascribed to Ossian, 
Finn's son, five poems ascribed to Finn himself, two poems 
ascribed to Caoilte the Fenian poet, a poem ascribed to one of 
Finn's followers, allusions to Finn in poems by one Gilla in 
Chomded and another, passages from the Dinnsenchas or 
topographical tract about Finn, the account of the battle of 
Cnamhross, in which Finn helps the Leinstermen against King 
Cairbre, the genealogy of Finn, and the genealogy of Diarmuid 
O'Duibhne. 

Again, in the Glossary ascribed, and probably truly, to 
Cormac, King-Bishop of Cashel, a.d. 837-903, there are two 
allusions to Finn, one of which refers to the unfaithfulness of 
his wife. This, indeed, is not contained in the oldest copy, 
but Whitley Stokes, than whom there can be no better 
authority, believes these allusions to belong to the older 
portion of the Glossary, a work which is probably much 
' interpolated. 

But there is yet another proof of the antiquity of the Finn 
stories which Mr. Nutt does not note, and in some respects it is 



382 LITERARY ///STORY OF IRELAND 

the most important and conclusive of all. For if, as D'Arbois 
de Jubainville has, I think, proved, the list of 187 historic tales 
contained in the Book of Leinster was really drawn up at the 
end of the seventh or beginning- of the eighth century, wc 
find that even then Finn or his contemporaries were the 
subjects of, or figure in, several of them, as in the story 
of " The Courtship of Ailbhe, daughter of King Cormac 
mac Art, by Finn," " The Battle of Moy Muchruime," 
where King Art, Cormac's father, was slain ; " The Cave 
of Bin Edair," where Diarmuid and Grainne took shelter 
when pursued by Finn ; " The Adventures of Finn in 
Derc Fearna (the cave of Dunmore)," a lost tale; "The 
Elopement of Grainne with Diarmuid," and perhaps one or 
two more. 

Thus Finn is sandwiched in as a real person along with his 
other contemporaries, not only in tenth and eleventh century 
annalists and poets, but is also made the hero of historic 
romance as early as the seventh or eighth century. Side by 
side in our list with the battle of Moy Muchruime we have 
the battle of Moy Rath. Copies of both, coloured with the 
same literary pigments, exist. The last we know to be his- 
torical, it can be proved ; why should not the first be also ? 
It is true that the one took place 438 years before the other, 
but the treatment of both is absolutely identical, and it is the 
merest accident that we happen to have external evidence 
for the latter and not for the former. I can see, then, no | 
sufficiently cogent reasons for viewing Finn mac Cumhail with 
different eyes from those with which we regard his king. I 
Cormac mac Art is usually acknowledged to have been a real 
king of flesh and blood, whose buildings are yet seen on the site 
of Tara, after whose daughter Grainne one of them is named, 
why should Finn, his chief captain, who married that Grainne, 
be a deity euhemerised ? I do not see any arguments sufficient 
to differentiate this case of Finn, to whom no particular super- 
natural qualities (except the knowledge he got when he 



THE FENIAN CYCLE 3S3 

chewed his thumb) are attributed, from that of Cormac and 
other kings and heroes who were the subjects of bardic stones, 
and whose deaths were recorded in the Annals, except the acci- 
dent that the creative imagination of the later Gaels happened 
to seize upon him and make him and his contemporaries the 
nucleus of a vast literature instead of some earlier or later 
group of perhaps equally deserving champions. Finn has long 
since become to all ears a pan-Gaelic champion just as Arthur 
has become a Brythonic one. 

Of the Fenian sagas the longest — though it is only 
fragmentary — is that known as the Dialogue or Colloquy 
of the Ancients, which is preserved in the Book of Lismore, 
and would fill about 250 of these pages. The plot of 
it is simple enough. Caoilte [Cweeltya] the poet and 
Ossian, almost sole survivors of the Fenians — who had lived 
on after the battle of Gabhra, where Cairbre, the High- 
king, broke their power for ever — meet in their very old age 
St. Patrick and the new preachers of the gospel. Patrick 
is most desirous of learning the past history of the island from 
them, and the legends connected with streams and hills and 
raths and so forth, and these are willingly recounted to him, 
and were all written * down by Brogan Patrick's scribe for 
posterity to read hereafter. The saga describes their wan- 
derings along with the saint, the stories they relate to 
him, and the verses — over a couple of thousand — sung or 
repeated by them to the clerics and others. 2 Some of these 
pieces are exceedingly beautiful. Here is a specimen, the 
lament which Crede made over her husband who was 
drowned at the battle ot Ventry. Caoilte repeats the verses 
to Patrick : 

" The haven roars, and O the haven roars, over the rushing race of 
Rinn-da-bliarc. The drowning of the warrior of Loch-da-chonn, that 

1 See above, p. 116. 

2 This has been edited by St.indish Hayes O'Grady in his " Silva 
Gadelica," from the Book of Lismore. 



384 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

is what the wave impinging on the strand laments. 1 Melodious is 
the crane, and O melodious is the crane, in the marshlands of Druim- 
dd-thren. Tis she who may not save her brood alive. The wild dog 
of two colours is intent upon her nestlings. A woful note, and O a 
woful note is thai which the thrush in Drumqueen emits, but not 
more cheerful is the wail which the blackbird makes in Letterlee. A 
woful sound, and O a woful sound, is that the deer utters in Drumda- 
leish. Dead lies the doe of Drumsheelin, 2 the mighty stag bells 
after her. Sore suffering, and O suffering sore, is the hero's death, 
his death, who used to lie by me. . . . Sore suffering to me is Cael, and 
O Cael is a suffering sore, that by my side he is in dead man's form ; 
that the wave should have swept over his white body, that is what 
hath distracted me, so great was his delightfulness. A dismal roar, 
and O a dismal roar, is that the shore's surf makes upon the strand. 
... A woful booming, and O a boom of woe, is that which the wave 
makes upon the northward beach, butting as it does against the 
polished rock, lamenting for Cael now that he is gone. A woful 
fight, and O a fight of woe, is that the wave wages with the southern 



1 " Geisid cuan, on geisid cuan 

Os buinne ruad rinn da bharc, 
Badad laeich locha dha chonn 
Is ed chainios tonn re tracht." 

" Silva Gadelica," p. 113 of Gaelic volume, p. 122 of English volume. I 
have not altered Dr. O'Grady's beautiful translation. 

2 This passage and that about the crane are not explained in the 
" Colloquy," but curiously enough I find the same passage in the saga 
called the Battle of Ventry, which Kuno Meyer published in " Anecdota 
Oxoniensia" from a fifteenth-century vellum in the Bodleian. The lady is 
there called Gelges [white swan], and as she sought for Cael among the 
slain " she saw the crane of the meadow and her two birds and the wily 
beast yclept the fox a-watching of her birds, and when she covered one 
of the birds to save it he would make a rush at the other bird, so that the 
crane had to stretch herself out between them both, so that she would 
rather have found and suffered death by the wild beast than that her birds 
should be killed by him. And Gelges mused on this greatly and said, " I 
wonder not that I so love my fair sweetheart, since this little bird is in such 
distress about its birdlets. She heard, moreover, a wild stag on Drum 
Reelin above the harbour, and it was vehemently bewailing the hind from 
one pass to the other, for they had been nine years together and had 
dwelt in the wood that was at the foot of the harbour, the wood of Feedesh, 
and the hind had been killed by Finn, and the stag was nineteen days 
without tasting grass or water, mourning for the hind. " It is no shame 
for me," said Gelges, " to find death with grief for Cael, as the stag is 
shortening his life for grief of the hind," etc. 



THE FENIAN CYCLE 385 

shore. A woful melody, and O a melody of woe, is that which the 
heavy surge of Tullacleish emits. As for me the calamity which has 
fallen upon me having shattered me, for me prosperity exists no 
more." 

Perhaps the Fenian saga, next in length and certainly in 
merit, is the well-known " Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne." 1 
Diarmuid of the Love-spot unwittingly causes Grainne ? daughter 
of Cormac mac Art, the High-king, to fall in love with him, 
just on the eve of her marriage with his captain, Finn mac 
Cool. He is driven to elope with her, and is pursued round 
Ireland by the vengeful Finn, who succeeds after many years in 
compassing the death of the generous and handsome Diarmuid 
by a wild boar, and then winning back to himself the love of 
the fickle Grainne. 

The Enchanted Fort of the Quicken Tree, the Enchanted 
Fort of Ceis Corann, 2 the Little Brawl at Allen, 2 the Enchanted 
Fort of Eochaidh Beag the Red,3 the Pursuit of Sive, daughter 
of Owen Og, the Pursuit of the Giolla Deacar, 2 the Death 
of the Great Youth the King of Spain's son,4 The Feast in 
the House of Conan,5 the Legend of Lomnochtan of Slieve 
Riffe, 6 the Legend of Ceadach the Great,7 the Battle of 

1 Pronounced " Graan-ya." This story has been edited and translated in 
the third volume of the Ossianic Society by Standish H. O'Grady, and has 
been since reprinted from his text. Dr. Joyce also translated it into 
English in his Old Celtic romances, but omits the cynical but most 
characteristic conclusion. The story was only known to exist in quite 
modern MSS., but I find an excellent copy written about the year 1660 in 
the newly-acquired Reeves Collection in the Royal Irish Academy. This 
saga was in existence in the seventh century, for it is mentioned in the 
list in the Book of Leinster. It is the subject of a recent cantata by the 
Marquis of Lome and Mr. Hamish Mac Cunn. 

2 Published by O'Grady in his " Silva Gadelica." 

3 The Irish text published without a translation by Patrick O'Brien in 
his Bldithflcasg. 

4 I published in a periodical a translation of this from a MS. in my own 
possession. 

s Published in vol. ii. of Ossianic Society. 

6 Is being published in the "Gaelic Jo rnal '' by the editor. 

7 Mentioned by Standish H. O'Grady, but I have met no copies of it, 
though I have heard a story of this name told orally, 

7 B 



386 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Tulach na n-each, 1 the Battle of Ventry, 2 the Battle of 
Cnucha, the Battle of Moy Muchruinie,3 the Battle of Moy 
i 6ana,4 the youthful Exploits of Finn mac Cool,5 the 
Battle of Gabhra, 6 the Birth of King Cormac,7 the Battle of 
Crinna,7 the Cause of the Battle of Cnucha, 8 the Invitation 
of Maol grandson of Manannan to the Fenians of Erin,9 the 
Legend of the Clown in the Drab Coat, 10 the Lamenta- 
tion of Oilioll after his children, 11 Cormac's Adventure in the 
Land of Promise, 12 the Decision about Cormac's Sword, x 3 an 
ancient fragment about Finn and Grainne, I 4 an ancient frag- 
ment on the Death of Finn x 5 — are some of the remaining prose 
sagas of this cycle. 

1 Mentioned by Standish H. O'Grady. 

2 Published from a fifteenth-century vellum in the Bodleian by Kuno 
Meyer in a volume of the " Anecdota Oxoniensia." 

3 Published by Standish H. O'Grady in " Silva Gadelica" from the Book 
of Leinster. I have a seventeenth-century paper copy of the same saga 
which is completely different. 

4 Published by O'Curry for the Celtic Society. 

s Edited by O'Donovan for the Ossianic Society and by Mr. David Comyn 
with a translation into modern Irish for the Gaelic League. 
6 Edited by O'Kearney for the Ossianic Society, vol. i. 
^ Published in " Silva Gadelica." 

8 A brief tale in the Leabhar na h-Uidhre, published in " Revue 
Celtique," vol. ii. 

9 Mentioned by Standish H. O'Grady in his preface to Diarmuid and 
Grainne, but unknown to me. 

10 Published without a translation by O'Daly of Anglesea Street in " Irish 
Self-taught," and with a translation in the " Silva Gadelica." 

11 Usually joined on to the modern version of the Battle of Mochruime. 

12 Published by Standish H. O'Grady for the Ossianic Society, vol. iii. p. 
212, from a modern MS. ; and by Whitley Stokes in "Irische Texte," iii. 
Serie, Heft. i. p. 203, from the Book of Ballymote and Yellow Book of 
Lecan. 

13 Published by Stokes in the same place as the last. 

14 " Zeitschrift fur Celt. Phil.," Band I. Heft. 3, p. 458, translated by Kuno 
Meyer. 

*s Ibid., and O'Grady, " Silva Gadelica." 



CHAPTER XXX 



MISCELLANEOUS ROMANCE 



In addition to the stones that centre round Cuchulain and 
round Finn there are a number of miscellaneous ones dealing 
with episodes or characters in Irish history ; some are in 
short groups or minor cycles, but others are completely inde- 
pendent tales. All are built upon lines similar to those which 
we have been considering, and they are composed for the most 
part in a mixture of both verse and prose. Some of these sagas 
deal with pre-Christian times, and others with the early 
mediaeval period. Very few, if any, deal with post-Danish 
and still fewer with post-Norman subjects. The seventh 
century was the golden era of the Irish saga, and nothing that 
the race did in later times improved on it. Out of the hundred 
and eighty-seven stories whose names are preserved in the Book 
of Leinster, in a list which must have been, as D'Arbois de 
Jubainville points out, drawn up in the seventh century, about one 
hundred and twenty seem to have utterly perished. Of the others 
— many of which, however, are preserved only in the baldest 
and most condensed form — some four or five relate to the Fenian 
Cycle, some eighteen are Red Branch stories, and some eight or 
nine, mostly preserved in the colourless digests of the Book of 
Invasions, are mythological. About twenty-one of the others 

3S7 



388 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

belong to minor groups, or arc miscellaneous single tales. Some 
of them arc of the highest interest and antiquity. Of these the 
storming of the Bruidhean [Bree-an] or Court of Da Derga 
is, after the Tain Ho Chuailgne, probably the oldest and most 
important saga in the whole range of Irish literature. 

These two stories substantially dating from the seventh 
century, and perhaps formed into shape long before that time, 
are preserved in the oldest miscellaneous MSS. which we possess, 
and throw more light upon pagan manners, customs, and 
institutions than perhaps any other. 1 

The period in which the Court-of-Da-Derga story is laid 
is about coincident with that of the Red Branch Cycle, 
only it does not deal with Emania, and the Red Branch, but 
with Leinster, Tara, and the High-king of Erin, who was 
there resident. The High-king at this time was the cele- 
brated Conaire the " Great," and rightly, if we may believe our 
Annals, was he so called, for he had been a just, magnanimous, and 
above all fortunate ruler of all Ireland for fifty years. 2 So just 
was he, and so strict, that he had sent into banishment a 
number of lawless and unworthy persons who troubled his 

1 There is an almost complete copy of this saga in the Leabhar na 
h-Uidhre. Like the Tain Bo Chuailgne, it has never been published in 
a translation. The language is much harder and more archaic than that 
of the Tain. I have principally drawn upon O'Curry's description of it, 
for I can only guess at the meaning of a great part of the original. 
Were all Europe searched the scholars who could give an adequate 
translation of it might be counted on the fingers of both hands — if not 
of one. 

2 According to the "Four Masters" he was slain in AM. 5161 [i.e., 43 
B.C.], after a reign of seventy years. " It was in the reign of Conaire," the 
" Four Masters " add, "that the Boyne annually cast its produce ashore at 
Inver Colpa. Great abundance of nuts were annually found upon the 
Boyne and the Buais. The cattle were without keeping in Ireland in his 
reign on account of the greatness of the peace and concord. His reign 
was not thunder-producing nor stormy. It was little but the trees bent 
under the greatness of their fruit." It is from Conaire the Ernaan tribes 
were descended. They were driven by the Rudricians, i.e., the Ultonians 
of the Red Branch, into Minister, and from thence they were driven by the 
race of Eber [the Mac Carthys, etc. of Munster],into the western islands. 



MISCELLANEOUS ROMANCE 3S9 

kingdom. Among these were his own five foster brothers 
whom he was reluctantly compelled to send into exile along 
with the others. These people all turned to piracy, and 
plundered the coasts of England, Scotland, and even Ireland, 
wherever they found an opportunity of making a successful 
raid upon the unarmed inhabitants. 1 It so happened that the 
son of the King of Britain, one Ingcel, also of Irish extraction, 
had been banished by his father for his crimes, and was now 
making his living in much the same way as the predatory 
Irishmen. These two parties having met, being drawn 
together by a fellow-feeling and their common lawlessness, 
struck up a friendship, and made a league with one another, 
thus doubling the strength of each. Soon after this the High- 
king found himself in Clare, called thither to settle, according 
to his wont, some dispute between rival chiefs. His business 
ended, he was leisurely taking his way with his retinue back 
to his royal seat at Tara, when on entering the borders of 
Meath he beheld the whole country in the direction of his city 
a sheet of flame and rolling smoke. Terrified at this, and 
divining that the banished pirates had made a descent on his 
capital during his absence, he turned aside and took the great 
road that, leading from Tara to Dublin, passed thence into the 
heart of Leinster. Pursuing this road the King crossed the 
Liffey in safety and made for the Bruighean [Bree-an] or Court 
of Da Derg on the road close to the river Dothar or Dodder, 
called ever since Boher-na-breena, 2 the " road of the Court," 
close to Tallacht, not far from Dublin. This was one of the 
six great courts of universal hospitality3 in Erin, and Da Derg, 
its master, was delighted and honoured by the visit from the 
High-king. 

1 It appears to have been partly in order to check raids like this, that 
the High-kings maintained the Fenians a couple of centuries later, for 
their chief duty was "to watch the harbours." 

2 A constant rendezvous for pedestrians and bicyclists from Dublin, not 
one in ten thousand of whom knows the origin of the name or its history 

3 For a description of another of these courts see above p. 355- 



5 o LITERARY 11/ STORY OF IRELAND 

The pirates having plundered Tara, took to their vessels, 
and having laden them with their spoils were now under a 
favourable breeze running along the sea coast towards the Hill 
of Howth 3 when they perceived from afar the King's company- 
making in their chariots for Dublin along the great high road. 
One of his own foster brothers was the first to recognise that it 
was the High-king who was there. He was kept in view and 
seen at last to enter Da Derg's great court of hospitality. 
The pirates ran their ships ashore to the south of the Liffey, 
and Ingcel the Briton set off as a spy to examine the court and 
the number of armed men about it ; to see if it might not be 
possible to surprise and plunder it during the night. On his 
return he is questioned by his companions as to what he saw, 
and by this simple device — familiar to all poets from Homer 
down — we are introduced to the principal characters of his 
court, and are shown what the retinue of a High-king con- 
sisted of in the sixth or seventh century, about which time the 
saga probably took definite shape on parchment, or in the 
second or third century if we are to suppose the traits to be more 
archaic than the composition of the tale. We have here a 
minute account of the King and the court and the company, 
with their costumes, insignia, and appearance. We see the 
King and his sons, his nine pipers or wind-instrument players, 
his cupbearers, his chief druid-juggler, his three principal 
charioteers, their nine apprentice charioteers, his hostages the 
Saxon princes, his equerries and outriders, his three judges, 
his nine harpers, his three ordinary jugglers, his three cooks, 
his three poets, his nine guardsmen, and his two private table 
attendants. We see Da Derg, the lord of the court, his three 
doorkeepers, the British outlaws, and the king's private drink- 
bearers. Here is the description of the King himself — 

" ' I saw there a couch,' 1 continued Ingcel, 'and its ornamentation 
was more beautiful than all the other couches of the Court, it is cur- 



1 Here is the original as given by O'Curry, "Manners and Customs," 
vol. iii. p. 141. This will show the exceeding difficulty of the language 



MISCELLANEOUS ROMANCE 391 

tained round with silver cloth, and the couch itself is richly 
ornamented. I saw three persons on it. The outside two of them 
were fair both hair and eyebrows, and their skin whiter than snow. 
Upon the cheek of each was a beautiful ruddiness. Between them 
in the middle was a noble champion. He has in his visage the 
ardour and action of a sovereign, and the wisdom of an historian. 
The cloak which I saw upon him can be likened only to the mist of 
a May morning. A different colour and complexion are seen on it 
each moment, more splendid than the other is each hue. I saw in 
the cloak in front of him a wheel broach of gold, that reaches from 
his chin to his waist. Like unto the sheen of burnished gold is the 
colour of his hair. Of all the human forms of the world that I have 
seen his is the most splendid. 1 I saw his gold-hilted sword laid 
down near him. There was the breadth of a man's hand of the sword 
exposed out of the scabbard. From that hand's breadth the man who 
sits at the far end of the house could see even the smallest object by 
the light of that sword. 2 More melodious is the melodious sound of 
that sword than the melodious sounds of the golden pipes which 
play music in the royal house. . . . The noble warrior was asleep 
with his legs upon the lap of one of the men, and his head in the 
lap of the other. He awoke up afterwards out of his sleep and spake 
these words — 

" ' " I have dreamed of danger-crowding phantoms, 
A host of creeping treacherous enemies, 
A combat of men beside the Dodder, 
And early and alone the King of Tara was killed." ' 

This man whom Ingcel had seen was no other than the 
High-king. 

The account of the juggler is also curious — 

" ' I saw there,' continued Ingcel, 'a large champion in the middle of 
the house. The blemish of baldness was upon him. Whiter than 
the cotton of the mountains is every hair that grows upon his head. 



11 Atcondarc and imdae acas bacaimiu acomthach oldata imdada in tigi 
olchena. Seolbrat nairgdidi impe acas cumtaige isin dimdae. Atcondarc 
triar ninni," etc. 

1 Keating says that according to some Conaire reigned only 30 years. 

2 The allusion appears to be to a bright steel sword in an age of bronze. 
Perhaps the music referred to means the vibration of the steel when struck. 
The " Sword of light " is a common feature in Gaelic folk-lore. Of course 
iron was common in Ireland centuries before this time, but the primitive 
description of Sword of light, transmitted itself from age to age. 



392 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

He had ear-clasps of gold in bis cars and a speckled white cloak 
upon him. He had nine swords in his hand and nine silvery shields 
and nine balls of gold. He throws ever)'- one of them up into the 
air and not one falls to the ground, and there is but one of them at a 
time upon his palm, and like the buzzing of bees on a beautiful day 
was the motion of each passing the other.' 

"'Yes,' said Ferrogain [the foster brother], 'I recognise him, he 
is Tulchinne, the Royal druid of the King of Tara ; he is Conaire's 
juggler, 1 a man of great power is that man.'" 

Da Derg himself is thus described — 

" ' I saw another couch there and one man on it, with two pages in 
front of him, one fair, the other black-haired. The champion himself 
had red hair and had a red cloak near him. He had crimson cheeks 
and beautiful deep blue eyes, and had on him a green cloak. He 
wore also a white under-mantle and collar beautifully interwoven, 
and a sword with an ivory hilt was in his hand, and he supplies every 
couch in the Court with ale and food, and he is incessant in attend- 
ing upon the whole company. Identify that man.' 

" ' I know that man,' said he, ' that is Da Derg himself. It was by 
him the Court was built, and since he has taken up residence in it, its 
doors have never been closed except on the side to which the wind 
blows ; it is to that side only that a door is put. Since he has taken 
to house-keeping his boiler has never been taken off the fire, but 
continues ever to boil food for the men of Erin. And the two who 
are in front of him are two boys, foster sons of his, they are the two 
sons of the King of Leinster.' " 



*& 



Not less interesting is the true Celtic hyperbole in Ingcel's 
description of the jesters: "I saw then three jesters at the 
fire. They wore three dark grey cloaks, and if all the men 
of Erin were in one place and though the body of the mother 
or the father of each man of them were lying dead before him, 
not one of them could refrain from laughing at them." 

In the end the pirates decide on making their attack. They 
marched swiftly and silently across the Dublin mountains, 
surrounded and surprised the court, slew the High-king 
caught there, as in a trap, and butchered most of his atten- 
dants. 

1 " Clcasamhnach," from cleas, "a trick," a living word still. 



MISCELLANEOUS ROMANCE 393 

After this tale of Da Derg come a host of sagas, all calling 
for a recognition, which with our limited space it is impossible 
to grant them. Of these one of the most important, though 
neither the longest nor the most interesting, is the account 
of the Boromean or Boru tribute, a large fragment of which 
is preserved in the Book of Leinster, a MS. of about the year 
1 150. 

When Tuathal or Toole, called Techtmhar, or the Possessor, 
was High-king of Ireland, at the close of the first century, 
he had two handsome daughters, and the King of Leinster 
asked one of them in marriage and took and brought home to 
his palace the elder as his wife. This was as it should be, for 
at that time it was not customary for the younger to be married 
a before the face of the elder." The Leinster men, however, 
said to their king that he had left behind the better girl of the 
two. Nettled at this the King went again to Tara and told 
Tuathal that his daughter was dead and asked for the other. 
The High-king then gave him his second daughter, with the 
courteous assurance " had I one and fifty daughters they were 
thine." When he brought back the second daughter to his 
piilace in Leinster she, like another Philomela, discovered her 
sister alive and before her. Both died, one of shame the other 
of grief. When news of this reached Tara steps were taken 
to punish the King of Leinster. Connacht and Ulster led a 
great hosting with 12,000 men into Leinster to plunder it. 
The High-king too marched from Tara through Maynooth 
to Naas and encamped there. The Leinstermen were at first 
successful ; they beat the Ultonians and killed their prince ; but 
at last all the invading forces having combined defeated them 
and slew the bigamist king. They then levied the blood-tax, 
which was as follows : — Fifteen thousand cows, fifteen thou- 
sand swine, fifteen thousand wethers, the same number of 
mantles, silver chains, and copper cauldrons, together with one 
great copper reservoir to be set up in Tara's house itself, in 
which would fit twelve pigs and twelve kine. In addition to 



394 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

this they had to pay thirty red-eared cows with calves of the 
same colour, with halters and spancels of bronze and bosses of 
gold. 

The consequences of this unfortunate tribute were to the 
last degree disastrous for Ireland. The High-kings of Ireland 
continued for aires to levy it off Leinster, and the Leinster- 
men continued to resist. The Fenians took part in the 
conflict, for they followed Finn mac Cumhail in behalf of the 
men of Leinster against their own master the High-king. 
The tribute continued to be levied, off and on, during the 
reigns of forty kings, whenever Leinster seemed too weak to 
resist, or whenever the High-king deemed himself strong 
enough to raise it : until King Finnachta at last remitted it 
at the close of the seventh century, at the request of St. 
Moiling.* 

" It is beyond the testimony of angels, 

It is beyond the word of recording saints, 

All the kings of the Gaels 

That make attack upon Leinster." a 

Of course the unfortunate province, thus plundered during 
generations, lost in some measure its nationality, and no doubt 
it was partly owing to this that it seemed more ready than any 
other district to ally itself with the Danes. The great Brian 
is said to have gained his title of Borumha or Boru through 
his having reimposed the tribute on Leinster, but though he 
conquered that province and plundered it, I am aware of no 
good authority for his actually re-imposing the Boru tribute. 

Some of the early saints' lives, too, may be considered as 
belonging almost as much to historico-romantic as to hagiolo- 
gical literature. From one of these, at least, we must give an 
extract, so that this voluminous side of Irish literature may 
not remain unrepresented. Here is a fragment of the life of 
St. Ceallach [Kal-lach] which is preserved in that ample repo- 

1 Sec above p. 236. 

2 Broccan's poem in the Book of Leinster translated by O'Neill Russell, 
in an American periodical. 



MISCELLANEOUS ROMANCE 395 

sitory of ecclesiastical lore the Leabhar Breac, a great vellum 
manuscript written shortly after the year 1400. The story 1 
deals with the dispute between Guaire [Goo-ar-ya], a well- 
known king of Connacht, and St. Ceallach, the latter of 
whom had during his student life left St. Ciaran and his 
studies, and thus drawn down upon himself the prediction of 
that great saint that he would die by point of weapon. 

Guaire having banished Ceallach, against whom his mind 
had been poisoned by lying tongues, the fugitive took refuge in 
an island in Loch Con, where he remained for a long time. 
Guaire, still excited against him through the lies of go- 
betweens, invited him to a feast with intent to kill him. He 
refuses however to go. The King's messengers then requested 
him to at least allow his four condisciples, the only ones who 
had remained with him in his solitude, to go with them to the 
feast, saying that they would bear the king's messages to him 
when they returned. "I will neither prevent them from 
going nor yet constrain them to go," answered Ceallach, the 
result of which was that the four condisciples returned along 
with the envoys, and the king was greatly pleased to see them 
come, and meat and drink, with good welcome, were provided 
for them. After this the saga proceeds. 

DEATH OF CEALLACH. 

" Then a banqueting-house apart was set in order for them, and 
thither for their use the fort's best liquor was conveyed. On 
Guaire s either side were set two of them, and — with an eye to win 
:hem that they might leave Ceallach — great gifts were promised to 
:hem ; all the country of Tirawley, four unmarried women such as 
:hemselves should choose out of the province, and, with these, 
lorses and kine, sufficient marriage dowry for their wives (such 
^ifts by covenant to be secured to them), and an adequate equip- 
iient of arms to be furnished to each one. 

"That night they abode there, but, at the morning's meal, with 
me accord they consented to kill Ceallach. 

1 x Translated by Standish Hayes O'Grady in " Silva Gacleliea," whose 
I'igorous rendering I have closely followed. 



396 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

"Thence they departed to Loch Con, and where they had left the 
boat they found it, and pulling off they reached Ceallach. They 
found him with his psalter spread out before him, as he said the 
psalms, nor did he speak to them. When he had made an end of 
his psalmody he looked at them, and marked their eyes unsteady in 
their heads, and clouded with the hue of parricide. 

"'Young men,' said Ceallach, 'ye have an evil aspect, since ye 
went from me your natures ye have changed, and I perceive in you 
that for King Guaire's sake ye have agreed to murder me.' 

" Never a tittle they denied, and he went on, ' An ill design it is, 
but follow now no longer your own detriment, and from me shall 
be had gifts, which far beyond all Guaire's promises shall profit you.' 

" They rejoined, ' By no means shall we do as thou wouldst have 
us, Ceallach, seeing that if we acted so, not in all Ireland might we 
harbour anywhere.' And, even as they spoke, at Ceallach they 
drave with their spears in unison ; yet he made shift to thrust his 
psalter in between him and his frock. They stowed him then in the 
boat amidships, two of themselves in the bow, and so gained a 
landing-place. Thence they carried him into the great forest and 
into the dark recesses of the wood. 

" Ceallach said : ' This that ye would do I count a wicked work 
indeed, for in Clonmacnois [if ye spared me] ye might find shelter 
for ever, or should it please you to resort rather to Blathmac and to 
Dermot, sons of Aedh Slaine, who is now King of Ireland [ye would 
be secure] .' 

\TJien Ceallach utters a poem of twenty-four lines.~\ 

" ' To advise us further in the matter is but idle,' they retorted, 
' we will not do it for thee.' 

" ' Well then,' he pleaded, ' this one night's respite grant to me 
for God's sake.' 

" ' Loath though we be to concede it, we will yield thee that,' they 
said. Then they raised their swords which in their clothes they 
carried hidden, and at the sight of them a mighty fear took Ceallach. 
They ransacked the wood until they found a hollow oak having one 
narrow entrance, and to this Ceallach was committed, they sitting j 
at the hole to watch him till the morning. They were so to the 
hour of night's waning end, when drowsy longing came to them, 
and deep sleep fell on them then. 

" Ceallach, in trouble for his violent death, slept not at all, at 
which time it was in his power to have fled had it so pleased him, 
but in his heart he said that it were misbelief in him to moot evasion 
of the living God's designs. Moreover, he reflected that even were 
he so to flee they must overtake him, he being but emaciated and 
feeble, after the Lent. Morning shone on them now, and he (for 



I 



MISCELLANEOUS ROMANCE 397 

fear to see it and in terror of his death) shut to the door, yet he said : 
' to shirk God's judgment is in me a lack of faith, Ciaran, my tutor, 
having promised me that I must meet this end, and as he spoke he 
flung open the tree's door. The Raven called then, and the Scall- 
crow, the Wren, and all the other birds. The Kite of Cluain-Eo's 
yew tree came, and the red Wolf of Drum-mic-dar, the deceiver 
whose lair was by the island's landing-place. 

" ' My dream of Wednesday's night last past was true,' said 
Ceallach, ' that four wild dogs rent me and dragged me through the 
bracken, and that down a precipice I then fell, nor evermore 
came up,' and he uttered this lay : — 

" ' HAIL to the Morning, that as a flame falls on the ground ; hail 
to Him, too, that sends her, the Morning many-virtued, ever-new ! x 

" ' O Morning fair, so full of pride, O sister of the brilliant Sun, 
hail to the beauteous morning that lightest for me my little book ! 

" ' Thou seest the guest in every dwelling, and shinest on every 
tribe and kin ; hail O thou white-necked beautiful one, here with us 
now, golden-fair, wonderful ! 

" ' My little book with chequered page tells me that my life has not 
been right. Maelcroin, 't is he whom I do well to fear ; he it is 
who comes to smite me at the last. 

" ' O Scallcrow, and O Scallcrow, small grey-coated, sharp-beaked 
fowl, the intent of thy desire is apparent to me, no friend art thou 
to Ceallach. 

" ' O Raven that makest croaking, if hungry thou art now, O bird, 
depart not from this same homestead until thou eatest a surfeit of 
my flesh ! 

" ' Fiercely the Kite of Cluain-Eo's yew tree will take part in the 
scramble, the full of his grey talons he will carry off, he will not 
part from me in kindness. 

" ' To the blow [that fells me] the fox that is in the darkling wood 
will make response at speed, he too in cold and trackless confines 
shall devour a portion of my flesh and blood. 

" ' The wolf that is in the rath upon the eastern side of Drum-mic- 
dar, he on a passing visit comes to me, that he may rank as chieftain 
of the meaner pack. 

' Upon Wednesday's night last past I beheld a dream, I saw the 
wild dogs dragging me together eastward and westward through 
the russet ferns. 



1 " Is mochean in maiten ban 
No taecl for lar, mar lasan, 
Is mochean do'n te rusfoi 
In maiten buadach bithnoi '' 



398 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

" ' I beheld a dream, that into a green glen they took me, four 
there were that bore me thither, but methought, ne'er brought me 
out again. 

" ' I beheld a dream, that to their house my condisciples brought 
me, for me they poured out a drink, and to me did they a drink 
quaff. 

" ' O tiny Wren most scant of tail, dolefully hast thou piped 
prophetic lay, surely thou art come to betray me and to curtail my 
gift of life ! x 

" 'O Maelcroin and O Maelcroin, thou hast resolved upon an un- 
righteous deed, for ten hundred golden ingots Owen's son 2 had ne'er 
consented into thy death ! 

" ' O Maelcroin and O Maelcroin, pelf it is that thou hast taken to 
betray me ; for this world's sake thou hast accepted it, accepted it 
for the sake of hell ! 

" c All precious things that ever I had, all sleek-coated grey horses, 
on Maelcroin I would have bestowed them, that he should not do 
me this treason. 

" ' But Mary's great Son up above me, thus addresses speech to me, 
' Thou must leave earth, thou shalt have heaven ; welcome awaits 
thee, Ceallach.' " 

The saint is then, as soon as the morning had fully risen, 
taken out of the tree by the four traitors, and put to death. 
The kite and the wolf and the scallcrow tear his flesh. The 
remainder of what is really a fine saga describes the hunt for 
the murderers and their final death at the hands of Ceallach's 
brother, who wrested for himself all the territory that Guaire 
had given them, marries Guaire's daughter, and is, like Ceallach , 
his brother, finally himself put to death by Guaire's treachery 

It would be quite impossible within the limits of a volume 
like this to give any adequate study of the evolution of Irish 
saga. All Irish romances are compositions upon which more 
or less care had evidently been bestowed, in ancient times, as 
is evidenced by their being all shot through and through with 
verse. These verses amount to a considerable portion of the 

1 Compare the legend of the wren's having betrayed the Irish to the 
English, whence the universal pursuit of him made by boys on St. 
Stephen's day. 

2 Ceallach himself. 



MISCELLANEOUS ROMANCE 399 

saga, often to nearly a quarter or even a third of the whole, 
and Irish versification is usually very elaborate, and not the 
work of any mere inventor or story-teller, but of a highly- 
trained technical poet. Very few pieces indeed, and these 
mostly of the more modern Fenian tales, are written in pure 
prose. It may be that the reciter of the ancient sagas actually 
sang these verses, or certainly gave them in a different tone 
from the prose narrative with which he filled up the gap 
between them. Whether the same man was both the 
composer of the verse and the framer of the prose narrative, in 
each particular story, is a difficult question to answer, but I 
should think that in most cases, at least in the older saga, 
incidents had been taken up by the bards and poets as themes 
for their verses, for perhaps ages before they were brought 
together by somebody and woven into one complete epopee 
with a prose intermixture. Dr. Sullivan thought that the 
Tain Bo Chuailgne was all originally written in verse, and 
has his own interpretation for the account given in the curious 
tale, the " Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institution," which 
tells us that the story was at one time lost, and that the Bardic 
Association was commanded to search for and recover it. 
This, according to him, meant that the verses had been lost, 
and that only a fragmentary form of it had been saved, the 
gaps being filled with prose. I do not quite know how far this 
is a probable suggestion, because it would appear to be rever- 
sing the processes which produce epic poetry in other 
literatures. The complete versified epic, the Iliad, the Odyssey, 
the Mahabharata, are indeed " the hatch and brood of time," 
embodying not the first but the last results of a long series of 
national poetry. But to this last result, so close to them, so 
easily attainable, the Irish never arrived, and hence the various 
ballads that compose the books of their Red Branch Iliad, or 
Fenian Odyssey, remains separate to this day, and find their 
unity, if at all, only by means of a bridge of prose thrown 
across from poem to poem, by men who were not poets. Had 



400 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

the interna] development of the Irish not been so rudely 
arrested bv the Northmen towards the close of the eighth and 
the beginning of the ninth century, there is every reason to 
believe that both the Red Branch and the Fenian Cycle would 
have undergone a further development and appeared in poems 
of continuous verse. 

The poems with which these sagas are intermixed are 
mostly of two kinds, one kind, speeches in the form of lays, 
placed in the mouths of the actors, prefaced by such words as 
"and he sang," a so that he spake the lay," or the like, and 
the other kind, which occurs less often, is as it were a resume 
in verse of what had been just told in prose. In almost every 
case I should imagine that the narrative poems are the oldest, 
and of them the prose is not unfrequently, as it were, an 
explanation and an extension. 

That the Irish had already made some approach to the 
construction of a great epic is evident from the way in which 
they attempted, from a very early date, to group a number of 
minor sagas, which were evidently independent in their origin, 
round their great saga the Tain Bo Chuailgne. There are 
twelve minor tales which the Irish called preface-stories to the 
Tain and which they worked into it by links, some of which, 
at least, were evidently forged long after the story which they 
were wanted to connect. Especially remarkable in this way 
is the story of the metempsychosis of the two swineherds, 
whose souls passed into the two bulls who occasioned the great 
war of the Tain, — a story which is of a distinctly independent 
origin, and which was forced to do duty as an outlying book, 
as it were, of the Tain Bo Chuailgne. 

How very great the number of Irish sagas must have been 
can be conjectured from the fact that out of the list of one 
hundred and eighty-seven contained in the Book of Leinster, 
at least one hundred and twenty have completely disappeared, 
and of the majority of the remainder we have only brief 
digests, whilst very many of the ones still preserved, are not 



MISCELLANEOUS ROMANCE 401 

mentioned in the Book of Leinster at all, thus proving that 
the list given in that manuscript is an imperfect one. A perfect 
one would have contained at the very least two hundred and 
fifty prime stories and one hundred secondary ones, for this was 
the number which every ollamh or chief poet was obliged, 
by law, to know. The following are some of the best known 
and most accessible of the earlier sagas which we have not yet 
mentioned, and which do not belong to any of the greater cycles. 
This list is drawn up, not according to the age of the texts 
or the manuscripts which contain them, but according to the 
date of the events to which they refer, and round which they 
are constructed. 

Sixth Century b.c — The destruction of Dinn Righ, otherwise 
called the exile of Labhraidh [Lowry] the Mariner. This appears to 
have been one of a group of lost romances which centred round the 
children of Ugony the Great, 1 of some of which Keating has given a 
resume in his history. 2 

Second Century b.c — The King of the Leprechanes' journey to 
Emania, and how the death of Fergus mac Leide, King of Ulster, 
was brought about. 3 

The triumphs of Congal Claringneach, which deals with a revolu- 
tion in the province of Ulster, the death of the King of Tara, and acces- 
sion of Congal to the throne. 4 

The Courtship of Etain by Eochaidh Aireach, King of Ireland, 
who came to the throne 134 years B.C., according to the " Four 
Masters." 

x For him, see above, p. 25. 

2 Some account of this saga is given in O'Curry's MS. Materials, p. 256. 
and by Keating, p. 253, of O'Mahony's translation. The entire saga is 
preserved in the Yellow Book of Lecan. My friend, the late Father James 
Keegan, made me a translation of another version, which he afterwards 
published in a St. Louis paper. 

3 Translated and edited by Standish Hayes O'Grady, p. 269 of his " Silva 
Gadelica." 

4 Only one copy of this tale was known to O'Curry in 205, Hodges 
and Smith, R. I. A. 

5 Edited without a translation by Windisch, in his " Irische Texte,' - 1. p. 
'117, and referred to at length by O'Curry, "Manners and Customs,' 

vol. ii. pp. 192-4 ; and summarised and examined by Alfred Nutt, in his 
V Voyage of Bran." See for this saga, p. 102, above. 

2 C 



402 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 
First Century b.c. — The Courtship of Crunn's wife. 1 To this 

century belong the Red Branch talcs. 

First CENTURY a.d. — The Battle of Ath Comair, fought by the 
three Finns, brothers of Mevc, Queen of Connacht. 2 

The Destruction of the Bruidhean [Bree-an] Da Choga, in West 
Meath, where Cormac Conloingeas, the celebrated son of King Conor 
mac Neasa, was killed about the year 33.3 

The Revolution of the Aitheach Tuatha, and the Death of Cairbre 
Cinn-cait by the free clans of Ireland. 4 

Second Century a.d. — The Death of Eochaidh [Yohy], son of 
Mairid. 5 

The progress of the Deisi from Tara. 6 

The Courtship of Momera, by Owen Mor. 7 (The Fenian tales 
and tales of Conn of the Hundred Battles, and Cormac mac Art, 
relate to this and the following century.) 

Third Century. — The Adventures of Teig, son of Cian [Kee-an], 
son of Oilioll Olum. 8 

The Siege of Drom Damhgaire, where Cormac mac Art attempted 
to lay a double tribute on the two provinces of Munster. 9 

Fourth Century. — The History of the Sons of Eochaidh 
Muighmheadhon [Mwee-va-on] father of Niall of the Nine 
Hostages. 10 

Death of King Criomhthann [Criv-han or Criff an] and of Eochaidh 
Muighmheadhon's three sons." 



1 This was Macha who pronounced the curse on the Ultonians. See above, 
p. 294 note 3. The story is preserved in the Harleian MS. 5280, British 
Museum. 

2 There is a long extract from this battle given by O' Curry in his 
" Manners and Customs," vol. ii. pp. 261-3. 

3 Preserved in the Leabhar na h-Uidhre. See O'Curry, " Manners and 
Customs," vol. iii. p. 254. There is a full copy in H. 3. 18, T. C, D. 

4 In H. 3. 18, T. C, D. See above, p. 27. 
s Edited from the Leabhar na h-Uidhre by O'Beirne Crowe, in the 

" Journal of the Royal Irish Historical and Archaeological Association, 1870," 
and by Standish Hayes O'Grady, " Silva Gadelica," p. 265. 

6 See O'Curry, " Manners and Customs,'* vol. ii. p. 205. I think Kuno 
Meyer has translated this saga somewhere. See p. 40. 

7 Published by O'Curry for the Celtic Society as an appendage to the 
Battle of Moy Leana. See above, p. 368. 

8 Translated by O'Grady, " Silva Gadelica," p. 385, and studied at length 
by Alfred Nutt, in his "Voyage of Bran," vol. i. p. 201. 

9 See O'Curry's " Manners and Customs," vol. ii. p. 212, and MS. Materials 
p. 271. This saga is contained at length in the Book of Lismore. 

10 Translated in O'Grady's "Silva Gadelica," p. 368. 

11 Ibid., p. 373. 



MISCELLANEOUS ROMANCE 403 

Fifth Century. — The Expedition or Hosting of Daithi, the last 
pagan king of Ireland, who was killed by lightning at the foot of 
the Alps. 1 

Sixth Century. — Death of Aedh Baclamh. 2 

Death of King Diarmuid — he who was cursed by St. Ruadhan. 3 

The birth of Aedh [Ae] Slaine, 4 the son of Diarmuid, who came to 
the throne in 595, according to the " Four Masters." 

The Wooing of Becfola, in the reign of Aedh Slaine's son. s 

The Voyage of the Sons of Ua Corra. 6 

Seventh Century. — The Proceedings of the Great Bardic 
Institution. 7 

The Battle of Moyrath. 8 

Suibhne's Madness, a sequel to the last. 9 

The Feast of Dun na ngedh, 8 a preface tale to the Battle of 
Moyrath. 

The Voyage of Snedgus and Mac Riaghla. 10 

The Love of Dubhlacha for Mongan. 11 

The Death of Maelfathartaigh, son of Ronan, 12 who was King of 
Leinster about the year 610. 



1 This is one of the tales in the Book of Leinster list. Modern versions 
are common. 

2 See above, p. 228, note, translated in <f Silva Gadelica," p. 70. 

3 Ibid., p. 76. * Ibid., p. 88. 

5 A short tale, translated in "Silva Gadelica," p. 91. 

6 Translated in the "Revue Celtique." 

7 Published by Professor Connellan for the Ossianic Society in i860, vol . v. 

8 Published by O'Donovan in 1842 for the Irish Archaeological Society. 

9 MS. 60, Hodges and Smith, R. I. A. 

10 Edited, with English translation, by Whitley Stokes, in " Revue 
Celtique," vol. ix., and translated into modern Irish by Father O'Growney 
in the " Gaelic Journal," vol. iv. p. 85, from the Yellow Book of Lecan. 

11 Edited by Kuno Meyer in " Voyage of Bran," vol. i. p. 58, from the 
Book of Fermoy. This version seems to have escaped the notice of 
D'Arbois de Jubainville, who says in his " Essai d'un Catalogue," " Cette 
piece parait perdue." I have in my own possession a copy in a MS. 
written by a scribe named O'Mahon in the last century, which is at least 
twice as long as that published by Kuno Meyer. 

12 The story of an Irish Hippolytus, whose death at his father's hands is 
compassed by his step-mother, sprctcv injuria formcc. O'Curry mentions 
this tale, MS. Materials, p. 277. It is one of the stories in the catalogue of 
the Book of Leinster, under the head of Tragedies. Another Hippolytus 
story is that of the death of Comgan, son of the King of the Decies, 
quoted by O'Curry, " Manners and Customs," vol. ii. p. 204, but I do not 
know from what MS. 



40 4 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Eighth Century. — The Voyage of Maelduin. 1 

There are very few sagas, indeed, which deal with events 
posterior to the eighth century, and among those which do 
(like the stories about Callaghan of Cashel and the Danes, or 
the Leeching of Cian's leg, which relates to the reign of Brian 
Boru, or O'Donnell's Kerne, which seems as late as the 
sixteenth century) there are not many whose literary merits 
stand high. It is evident from this, that, apart from the poets, 
almost all the genuine literary activity of Ireland centred ' 
around the days of her freedom, and embraced a vast range of 
time, from the mythical De Danann period down to the 
birth of Christ, and from that to the eighth century, and that 
after this period and the invasions of the Northmen and 
Normans, Irish national history produced few subjects stimu- 
lating to the national muse ; so that the literary production 
which still continued, though in narrower channels and in j 
feebler volume, looked for inspiration not to contem- j 
poraneous history, but to the glories of Tara, the exploits of 
Finn mac Cumhail, and the past ages of Irish greatness. 

The number of sagas still surviving, though many of them 
are mere skeletons, may be conjectured from the fact that 
O'Curry, in his manuscript lectures on Irish history, quotes 
from or alludes to ninety different tales, all of considerable 
antiquity, whilst M. d'Arbois de Jubainville, in his " Essai d'un 
Catalogue de la litterature epique de l'lrlande," gives the 
names of no less than about 540 different pieces. 

1 Translated, but not very literally, by Joyce in his " Early Celtic 
Romances," and by M. Lot in D'Arbois de Jubainville's " Epopee 
Celtique," critically edited by Whitley Stokes in the "Revue Celtique," 
t. ix. p. 446, and x. pp. 50-95. 



CHAPTER XXXI 



PRE-DANISH POETS 



The sagas and historic tales, and the poetry that is mingled 
with them, are of far greater importance from a purely literary 
point of view than any of the other known productions 
during the pre-Norman period. Although in almost every 
instance, I may say, their authorship is unknown, they are or 
infinitely greater interest than those pieces whose authorship 
has been carefully preserved. One of the first poets of renown 
after St. Patrick's time was Eochaidh [Yohy], better known as 
Dalian Forgaill. It is to him the celebrated " Amra," or elegy 
on Columcille, whose contemporary he was, is ascribed, 1 and 
this poem in the Bearla Feni, or Fenian dialect, has come 
down to us so heavily annotated that the text preserved is 
the oldest miscellaneous manuscript we have, the Leabhar 
na h-Uidhre, is almost smothered in glosses and explana- 
tions, and indeed would be perfectly unintelligible without them. 
The gloss and commentary is really far more interesting than 
the poem, which indeed, considering the fame of Dalian, 

1 Air. Strachan, however, has lately cast doubts upon its genuineness and 
ascribes it in its present form to a later date. 

405 



4o6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

is very disappointing ; but no doubt it derived half its impor- 
tance from being in the Fenian dialect, and hence incompre- 
hensible to the ordinary reader. " He wrote," says the learned 
Colgan, who published at Louvain the lives of the saints which 
O'Clery collected for him at the beginning of the seventeenth 
century, " in the native speech, and in ancient style, several 
little works which cannot in later ages be easily penetrated by 
many otherwise well versed in the old native idiom and 
antiquity, and hence they are illustrated by our more learned 
antiquaries with scattered commentaries, and as rare monu- 
ments of our ancient language and antiquity it is customary to 
lecture on them and expound them in the schools of anti- 
quaries of our nation. Among these is one panegyric or 
poem always held in great esteem on the praises of St. 
Colomb, and entitled c Amra Choluim cille,' " etc. Colgan 
adds in a note, " I have in my possession one copy of this 
work, but putting aside a few scattered commentaries which 
it contains, it is penetrable to-day to only a few, and these the 
most learned." 

This obscure poem is not, so far as I can see, composed in 
any metre or rhythm. It, with its gloss, is divided into seven 
chapters and an introduction. Here is the comment on the 
first words Dia y T)ia, which will show better than anything 
that could be written, the very high state of independent 
development which the Irish poets had early attained in the 
technique of their art. We must remember that the manu- 
script in which we find this was copied about the year 
1 1 oo, and the commentary may be much older. Irish 
is indeed the only vernacular language of western Europe 
where poetic technique had reached so high a perfection in the 
eleventh century. Fully to see the significance of this one 
must remember that the English language had not at this time 
even begun to emerge. Compare this highly-developed critical 
commentary with anything of the same age that Germany, 
France, or Italy has to show. 



PRE-DANISH POETS 407 

" Dia, Dia, 1 God, God, etc.," says the commentator, " it is why he 
doubles the first word on account of the rapidity 2 and avidity of the 
praising, as Deus, Deus metis, etc. But the name of that with the 
Gael is ' Return-to-a-usual-sound,' for there be three similar standards 
of expression with the poets of the Gaels, that is re-return to a usual 
sound, and renarration mode and reduplication, and this is the mark 
of each of them. The return indeed is a doubling of one word in 
one place in the round, without adhering to it from that forth. The 
renarration mode again is renarrating from a like mode ; that means 
the one word — to say it frequently in the round, with an intervention 
of other words between them, as this — 

' Came the foam which the plain filters, 3 
Came the ox through fifty warriors ; 
So came the keen active lad 
Whom brown Cu Dinisc left.' 

But ' reduplication ' is, namely ' refolding,' that is ' bi-geminating,' as 
this— 

" I fear fear / after long long / 

Pains strong strong / without peace peace / 
Like each each / until doom doom / 
For gloom gloom / will not cease cease." 4 

1 I follow here O'Beirne Crowe's imperfect rendering. If he trans- 
lates some words of this difficult piece inaccurately it does not much matter 
for my purpose. 

2 Ar abcla no ar lainni an molta. This word Abel for " quick," " rapid," 
though neither in O'Reilly's nor Windisch's nor the Scotch Gaelic 
dictionaries, is a common one in the spoken language of West Connacht. 
It occurs twice in the "Three Shafts of Death," where it is mistrans- 
lated by "awful," but it must be carefully distinguished from M. I. Abdul, 
Keating's Adhbhal. The word is not known in Waterford, and my friend 
the late Mr. Fleming, who was the chief authority in the Royal Irish 
Academy on the spoken language, and who hailed from that county, was, 
I believe, unacquainted with it. 

3 This translation is evident nonsense, but I cannot better it. The 
original is " Ric in sithbe sitlas mag." 

4 Is e immoro ad/abul, i.e., afhillind, i.e., doemnad, ut est hoc, i.e., 

" Agur agur iar cein chein 

Bith i pein, phein ni sith sith, 
Amail each each, co brath brath, 
In cech tnith trath, cid scith scith." 

My translation is in the exact metre of the original, and conveys in 
English the manner in which the heptasyllabic Irish lines were pro- 
nounced, in which, despite of what some continental scholars have 



408 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

"There are two divisions of these in this fore-speech [to the 

Anna]; that is, we have the ' Return-to-a-usual-sound ' and the 

'renarration-mode,' but in the body of the hymn we have the 
' renarration-mode ' only." 

Here is another passage which will show the difficulty that 
was found so early as the eleventh century in explaining this 
Fenian dialect. 

" It is a harp without a ceis, it is a church without an 
abbot — i.e., ccis is a name for a small harp which is used as an 
accompaniment to a large harp in co-playing ; or it is a name for 
the small pin which holds the cord in the wood of the harp ; or for 
the tacklings, or for the heavy cord. Or the ccis in the harp is what 
holds the side part with its chords in it, as the poet said — it was 
Ros l mac Find who sang it, or Ferceirtne 2 the poet, 

The base-chord concealed not music from the harp of Crabtene, 
Until it dropped sleep-deaths upon hosts. 

..... s 

Sweeter than any music, the harp 

Which delighted Labhraidh [Lowry] Lore the Mariner, 

Though sullen about his secrets was the King, 

The ceis, or base-chord of Craftine concealed it not." 

This poem is an allusion to the sagas which grouped them- 
selves round the sons of Ugony the great and Lowry the 
Mariner, who reigned about 530 years B.C. 

In another place he quotes a poem of Finn mac Cumhail's. 

"'And sea-course' — i.e., he was skilful in the art of renis 3 that is 
' of the sea,' or it may be rian that would be right in it, as Finn, 
grandson of Baoisgne [Bweesgna] said — 

" ' A tale I have for you. Ox murmurs, 
Winter roars, summer is gone. 
Wind high cold, sun low, 
Cry is attacking, sea resounding. 



advanced, there is, I believe, no alternation of beat or stress at all, and neither 
trochee nor iambus. O'Beirne Crowe mistranslates dgur by " I ask." 

1 Ros was chief poet of Erin in the time of St. Patrick, and is said to 
have helped him in redacting the Brehon Law. 

2 Ferceirtne was the poet at Conor mac Nessa's Court in the first century 
B.C., who contended in the " Dialogue of the Two Sages," see above p. 240. 

3 See above for rein being used for sea, p. 10, 



PRE-DANISH POETS 409 

Very red raying has concealed form. 
Voice of geese [Barnacles] has become usual, 
Cold has caught the wings of birds, 
Ice-frost time ; wretched, very wretched. 1 
A tale I have for you.' " 

Another verse quoted alludes to the chess-board of Crimh- 
thann Nianair, who came to the throne eleven years before the 
birth of Christ. 2 

" Fecht afor nia nem — i.e., the time when the champion would 
come, that is Columcille, for nia means a champion, as is said — 

" ' The chessboard of Crimhthann, brave champion, 
A small child carries it not on his arm (?) 
Half of its chessmen are of yellow gold. 
The other half of white bronze. 
One man of its chessmen alone 
Would purchase six married couples.' " 

The ancient commentator quotes, thirty-five times in all, 
from various poems, in explanation of his text, including poems 
as:ribed to Columcille himself, and to Grainne, the daughter 
of Cormac mac Art, who eloped from Finn mac Cumhail. He 
quotes the satire made on Breas in the time of the Tuatha De 
Danann, and a verse of St. Patrick (some of whose Irish 
poetry is also quoted by the " Four Masters "), and a poet called 
Colman mac Lenene, who was first a poet, but afterwards 
became a saint, and founded the great school of Cloyne. 

1 The translation is doubtful. Dr. Sigerson has well versified it in his 
"Bards of the Gael and Gaul," p. 116. The original has a curious metrical 
effect not unlike that other piece attributed to Finn, quoted above p. 275. 
It might be printed thus — 

Seel lem duib Roruad rath 

Dordaid dam Rocleth cruth, 

Snigid ^aim Rogab gnath 

Rofaith sam. Giugrand guth. 

Gaeth ard huar, Rogab uacht 

Isel grian Ete en, 

Gair arrith Aigre re 

Ruthach nan. E, moscle. 

3 Sec above p. 27 for Crimhthann's chess-board. 



410 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Dalian wrote two other Amras, one on Senan of Innis 
Cathaigh, " which," remarks Colgan, "on account of antique- 
ncss of style and gracefulness is amongst those fond of 
antiquity, always held in great esteem," and another in praise 
of Conall of Inskeel in Donegal, in one grave with whom he- 
was buried. There has also come down to us in the same 
inscrutable Fenian dialect a poem of his consisting of eighty- 
lour lines on the shield of Hugh, King of Oriel, which, unlike 
his Amra, is in perfect rhyme and metre. 1 

It was he who headed the bardic body when they were so 
nearly banished from the kingdom, and were only saved by the 
intervention of St. Columcille at the Synod of Drom Ceat 
[Cat], of which more hereafter. There is a curious specimen 
of his overbearing truculence in a story preserved in the same 
manuscript (of about the year noo) that has preserved his 
Amra ; it is headed " A Story from which it is inferred that 
Mongan was Finn mac Cumhail." The poet was stopping with 
Mongan, King of Ulster. 



1 Published by Professor Connellan, but without a translation, at p. 258 
of Vol. V. of Ossianic Society's publications. It, too, is in the Feni dialect. 
The first verse, in honour of Dubh-Giolla, " the Black Attendant," which 
was the name of the King's shield will show its abstruseness. 

"Dub gilla dub, arm naise, 
Eo Rosa raon slegh snaise, 
Adeardius daib diupla gainde 
d'Aodh do cinn lainne glaise." 

It would appear that Dalian could write Irish as well as Bearla Feni 
from this verse, which is ascribed to him by. the " Four Masters." " Dalian 
Forgaill," they say, " dixit hoc do bhas Choluim Cille." 

" Is leigheas legha gan les 
Is dedhail smeara re smuais 
Is abhran re emit gan cheis 
Sinne deis ar nargain uais." 

It is the healing of a leech without light [i.e., in the dark] ; it is a dividing 
of the marrow from the bone ; it is the song of a harp without a base- 
string that we are, after being deprived of our noble." This verse does 
not occur in the Amra, though the expression a " harp without a base- 
string " does. 



PRE-DANISH POETS 411 

" Every night the poet would recite a story to Mongan. So great 
was his lore that they were thus from Halloweve till May-day. 
He had gifts and food from Mongan. One day Mongan asked his 
poet what was the death of Fothad Airgdech. Forgoll said he was 
slain at Duffry in Leinster. Mongan said it was false. The poet 
[on hearing that] said he would satirise him with his lampoons, and 
he would satirise his father and his mother and his grandfather, and 
he would sing [spells] upon their waters, so that fish should not be 
caught in their river-mouths. He would sing upon their woods so 
that they should not give fruit, upon their plains so that they should 
be barren for ever of any' produce. 

"Mongan [thereupon] promised him his fill of precious things, 
so far as [the value of] seven bondmaids, or twice seven bondmaids, 
or three times seven. At last he offers him one-third, or one-half of 
his land, or his whole land ; at last [everything] save only his own 
liberty with that of his wife Breothigernd, unless he were redeemed 
before the end of three days. 

" The poet refused all except as regards his wife. For the sake of 
his honour Mongan consented. Thereat his wife was sorrowful, 
the tear was not taken from her cheek. Mongan told her not to be 
sorrowful, help would certainly come to them." 

Eventually the poet is very dramatically shown to be in the 
wrong. 1 

Dalian Forgaill was succeeded in the Head Ollamhship of all 
the Irish bards by his pupil Senchan Torpeist, who was equally 
overbearing, and whose intolerable insolence is admirably 
satirised in the story called the " Proceedings of the Great 
Bardic Association." Only two poems of his have come down 
to us, one being his elegy on the death of his master Dalian 
Forgaill. 

1 Sec the whole story, carefully edited by Kuno Meyer, in " The Voyage 
of Bran," p. 45, where the poet is called Forgoll, but this is evidently the 
same as our Dalian Forgaill, though Kuno Meyer appears not to think so, 
for he has the following note : " Forgoll seems to have been an overbear- 
ing and exacting file of the type of Athirne and Dalian Forgaill." But as 
the story synchronises with the life of Dalian Forgaill, and there is, so far 
as I know, no second poet known as Forgoll, it is evidently the same 
person. The "Dalian," i.e., the "blind man" (for he lost his eyesight 
through overstudy), being prefixed to Forgaill appears to inflect it in the 
genitive case, as An Tighearna easbuig, "the Lord Bishop," i.e., the lord 
of a bishop, "the blind man of a Forgall." 



412 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

The next great lay poet of importance seems to have been 
Cennfaeladh, who died in 678, whose verses are constantly cited 
by the" Four Masters." He was originally an Ulster warrior who 
was wounded in the battle of Moyrath, which was fought when 
Adamnan, Columcille's biographer, was eleven years old, and 
he was brought to be cured to the house of one Brian in 
Tuaim Drecain, where there were three schools, one of classics, 1 
one of law, and one of poetry. He used to attend — apparently 
during his convalescence — these various schools, and what he 
heard in the day he would repeat to himself at night, so that 
" his brain of forget fulness was extracted from his head after 
its having been cloven in the battle of Moyrath." " And he 
put a clear thread of poetry through them, and wrote them on 
flags and on tables, and he put them into a vellum book." 
Hence he became a great lawyer as well as a poet, and a 
considerable part of the celebrated Brehon Law Book, called 
the Book of Acaill, is ascribed to him. 2 

Angus Ceile De 3 [Kail-a Day], or the Culdee, is the next 
poet of note who claims our attention. He flourished about 
the year 800, and is the author of the well-known Feilire, or 
Calendar. In this work one stanza in rinn alrd metre is 

1 Scoil "legind." 

2 See one of the poems ascribed to him printed by Professor Connellan 
from the Book of Ballymote, Ossianic Society, vol. v. p. 268. If it is 
Cennfealadh's it has been greatly altered during the course of transcrip- 
tion. 

3 Ceile De, or Culdee, i.e., " Servus Dei," was a phrase used with much 
latitude, and in general denoted an ascetic, but occasionally also a mis- 
sionary, monk. We find the Dominicans of Sligo called Culdees in a MS. 
of the year 1600. They seem to have arisen in the seventh or early eighth 
century. The Scottish Culdees, becoming lax in later times, married and 
established a spurious hereditary order. There is, of course, no truth in 
the fable that they were the pre-Patrician or early Scottish Christians, a 
notion which Campbell has propagated in his fine poem " Reulura," i.e., 
"reull-ur ": — 

" Peace to their souls, the pure Culdees 
Were Albyn's earliest priests of God, 
Ere yet an island of her seas 
By foot of Saxon monk was trod ! " 



P RE-DANISH POETS 413 

devoted to each day of the year, in connection with the name 
of some saint — an Irish one wherever possible. The Feilire is 
followed by a poem of five or six hundred lines, which with its 
glosses and commentaries is probably the most extensive piece 
of Old Irish poetry that we have. Whitley Stokes, who edited 
it with great care, considers it to be of the tenth rather than 
the late eighth or early ninth century. If so, this would leave 
its authorship doubtful, but it has been shown, I think by Kuno 
Meyer, that the number of deponental forms contained in it 
might point to a higher antiquity than that which Whitley 
Stokes allows. It has certainly been always hitherto accepted 
as the work of Angus, and as it cannot well, in any case, be 
more than a century or so later, we may let it stand here, 
as it has always done, under his name. In the ancient and 
curious Irish notes and commentary on the Feilire we find a 
great number of verses quoted from the poet-saints, and these 
include St. Patrick, St. Ciaran the elder, St. Comgall with St. 
Columcille his friend, St. Ite the virgin, St. Kevin of Glen- 
daloch, St. Ciaran of Clonmacnois, St. Molaise [Moleesha] 
of Devenish (who sent Columcille to banishment), St. Mo- 
chuda of Lismore, St. Moiling, St. Fechin of Fore, St. 
Aireran of Clonard, Maelruan of Tallaght, Adamnan (Colum- 
cille's biographer), and Angus the Culdee himself, a goodly 
company of priests and poets ; but no one seems to have 
been anything esteemed in ancient Erin unless he either 
was or was reputed to be a poet ! Of true poetic spirit 
it contains not much, but it is a wonderful example of 
technical difficulties overcome. The metre is one of the most 
difficult, a six-syllable one, with dissyllabic endings. The 
first stanzas, translated into the metre of the original, run 
as follows : — 

" Bless, O Christ, my speaking, 
King of heavens seven, 
Strength and wealth and power 
In this hour be given. 



4 i4 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 
Given,* O thou brightest, 

Destined chains to sever, 
King of Angels glorious, 
And victORious ever. 

Ever o'er us shining, 

Light to mortals given, 
Beaming daily, nightly, 

Brightly out of -heaven." 

The Saltair na Rann has also been usually ascribed to 
Angus, but it can hardly be, as Dr. Whitley Stokes has shown, 
earlier than the year iooo, 2 for it mentions apparently as con- 
temporaries Brian king of Munster, and Dub-da-lethe arch- 
bishop of Armagh, appointed in 988. It is a collection of one 
hundred and sixty-two poems in early Middle Irish containing 
between eight and nine thousand lines, mostly composed in 
Deibhidh [D'yevvee] metre. These poems are all of a more 
or less religious cast, and most of them are based (like the 
Saxon Caedmon's) on Old Testament history, but they also 
contain a prodigious deal of curious matter. The opening 
poem begins — 

" Mo ri-se ri nime nair." 3 
(" My king is the King of noble Heaven.") 



1 This tour de force, which consists of laying stress in the beginning of 
each succeeding stanza upon the word which ended the last, is common in 
Irish and is called conachlonn. It is much used by Angus. It seems to be 
self-evolved in Irish, whose prosody is full of original terms unborrowed 
from the Latin, which, to my mind, tells strongly in favour of pre-Christian 
culture. It is curious that Horace who falls into conachlonn in his second 
ode, never returned to a form so well adapted to lyric purposes : — 

" Dextera sacras jaculatus arces 
Terr nit urbem. 
Tcrruit gentes," etc. 

2 He has edited the text without a translation from the only MS. that 
contains it — Rawlinson, B 502, in the Bodleian, in the "Anecdota Ox- 
oniensia " Series. Oxford deserves splendidly of Celtic scholars. If only 
Dublin would follow her example ! 

3 " Mo ri-se ri nime nair 

Cen huabur cen immarbaig, 

Dorosat domun dualach, 

Mo ri bith-beo bith-buadach." 



PRE-DANISH POETS 415 

It tells of the creation of the world, of the sun, of heaven 
and earth, light and darkness, day and night, of how the earth 
separated from the primal material, and was surrounded by the 
firmament, the world being " like an apple, goodly and round" ; 
then the king created the mists, the current of the cold watery 
air, the four chief winds, and the eight sub-winds, with their 
colours, " the white, the clear purple, the blue, the great green, 
the yellow, the red truly-bold, . . . the black, the grey, 
the speckled (?), the dark (?), the dull-black, the dun- 
coloured." x The poet then discusses the distance from the 
earth to the firmament, the seven planets, the distance from the 
earth to the moon, from moon to sun, the windless ethereal 
heaven, the distance between the firmament and the sun, the 
motionless Olympus or third heaven, the distance from the 
firmament to heaven and from the earth to the depths of hell, 
the five zones, the firmament round the earth, like its shell 
round an egg, the seventy-two windows of the firmament, 
with a shutter on each, the seventh heaven revolving like a 
wheel, with the seven planets from the creation, the signs of 
the zodiac, 2 the time (30 days 10J hours) that the sun is in 
each, the day of the month on which it enters each, the month 
in which it is in each, the division of the firmament into twelve 

1 "In gel in corcarda glan, 
In glass ind uaine allmar, 
In buidi in derg, derb dana, 
Nisgaib fergg frisodala, 
In dub, ind liath ind alad, 
In t-emen in chiar chalad, 
Ind odar doirchi datha 
Nidat soirchi sogabtha." 

The hundred and fifty-second poem, which is a beautiful one, again asks 
what are the colours of the winds. Line 7,948. 

- A good example of how Irish assimilates foreign words by cutting 
off their endings : — 

"Aquair, Pise, Ariet, Tauir, Treb, 
Geimin choir, ocus Cancer, 
Leo Uirgo, Libru, Scoirp scrus, 
Sagitair, Capricornus." 

Leo is pronounced L'yo as a monosyllable. 



4 i6 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

parts, and the five things which every intelligent man should 
know — the day of the month, age of the moon, height of the 
tide, day of the week, and saints' festivals ! 1 

The attribution of colours to the winds in this poem is 
curious and appears to be Irish. I have met traces of this 
fancy even amongst the modern peasantry. There is a strange 
entry in the Great Brehon Law Book, the Seanchas Mor, 
which quotes the colours of the winds in the same order. 

" The colour of each," says this strange passage, " differs from the 
other, namely, the white and the crimson, the blue 2 and the green, 
the yellow and the red, the black and the grey, the speckled and the 
dark, the ciar (dull black) and the grisly. From the east comes the 
crimson wind, from the south the white, from the north the black, 
from the west the dun. The red and the yellow winds are produced 
between the white and the crimson, the green and the grey between 
the grisly and the white, the grey and the ciar between the grisly 
and the jet-black, the dark and the mottled between the black and 
the crimson. And those are all the sub-winds contained in each and 
all the cardinal winds." 

After thus describing the creation of the world in the first 
poem, we are introduced in subsequent ones to heaven and the 
angels, who are named for us, and then shown hell and 
Lucifer's abode, the description of which, except that it is in 
verse, reminds us of that given by St. Brendan. Next we are 
introduced to Adam and Eve, and it is stated that Adam had 
spent a thousand years in the Garden of Eden. The jealousy 
of Lucifer is described, and his temptation of Eve, whom he 
persuades to open the door and let him into the garden. 
Then he makes her eat the apple, and Adam takes half from 

1 See Whitley Stokes' introduction for the analysis of the ist, the nth, 
and the 12th poem. 

2 " Glas " must be here translated " blue." It is a colour used by the Irish 
with great latitude, and apparently means yellowish, or light blue, or 
greenish grey. To this day a grey eye is suit ghlas and green grass is four 
glas, yet the colour of grass is not that of a grey or even of a grey-green 
eye. We want a study on colours and their shades as at present used by 
the Irish and the Scotch Highlanders. 



PRE-DANISH POETS 417 

her and eats also. The eleventh poem describes the evil 
result, and is quite Miltonic and imaginative. It tells us 
how for a week, after being driven out, Adam and his wife 
remain without fire, house, drink, food, or clothing. He then 
begins to lament to Eve over all his lost blessings and admits 
that he has done wrong. Thereupon Eve asks Adam to kill 
her, so that God may pity him the more. Adam refuses. 
He goes forth in his starvation to seek food, and finds nothing 
but herbs, the food of the lawless beasts. He proposes then to 
Eve to do penance and adore God in silence, Eve in the 
Tigris for thirty days, and Adam in the Jordan for forty-seven 
days, a flagstone under their feet and the water up to their 
necks. Eve's hair fell dishevelled round her and her eyes were 
directed to heaven in silent prayer for forgiveness. Then 
Adam prays the river Jordan " to fast with him against God, 
with all its many beasts, that pardon may be granted to him." 
Then the stream ceased to flow, and gathered together every 
living creature that was in it, and they all supplicate the 
angelic host to join with them in beseeching God to forgive 
Adam. They obtain their request, and forgiveness is granted 
to Adam and to all his seed except the unrighteous. When 
the devil, however, hears this, he, " like a man in the shape of 
a white angel," goes to Eve as she stands in the Tigris, and 
gets her to leave her penance, saying that he had been sent by 
God. They then go to Adam, who at once recognises the 
devil, and shows Eve how she has been deceived. Eve falls 
half dead to the ground and reproaches Lucifer. He, however, 
defends himself, and repeats to them at length the story of his 
expulsion from heaven for refusing to worship Adam. He 
:oncludes by threatening vengeance on him and his descen- 
dants. Adam and his wife then live alone for a year on grass, 
■vithout fire, house, music, or raiment, drinking water from 
heir palms, and eating green herbs in the shadows of trees and 
n caverns. Eve brings forth a beautiful boy, who at once 
proceeds to cut grass for his father, who calls him Cain. God 

2 D 



418 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

at last pities Adam and sends Michael to him with various 
seeds, and Michael teaches him husbandry and the use of 
animals. Seven years afterwards Eve brings forth Abel. In 
a vision she sees Cain drinking the blood of Abel. 

In this manner, with a free play of the imagination, the 
writer runs through both Old and New Testaments, down to 
the denial of Peter and the death of Christ, in 150 poems, to 
which are appended twelve more, eleven of them in a different 
and more melodious metre, " rannaigheacht mhor," on the resur- 
rection. 

There were a number of other pre-Danish poets, but only 
occasional pieces of theirs have been preserved. Their obits are 
often mentioned by the annalists, but the few longer pieces of 
theirs that have survived to our day being mostly historical or 
genealogical, and as such devoid of much literary interest, we 
may neglect them. 



CHAPTER XXXII 



THE DANISH PERIOD 



The first onfall of the Danes seems to have been made about 
the year 795, and for considerably over two centuries Erin was 
shaken from shore to shore with ever-recurring alarms, and for 
many years every centre of population lived in a state of terror, 
not knowing what a day might bring forth. Monasteries and 
colleges were burnt again and again, and built again and 
again, only to be reburnt. Numbers of invaluable books were 
destroyed, gold and silver work was carried off in quantities, 
and a state of unrest produced, which must have made learning 
in many parts of the island well-nigh impossible. 

Strange to say, despite the troubled condition of Ireland 
during these two or three centuries, she produced a large 
number of poets and scholars, the impulse given by the 
enthusiasm of the sixth and seventh centuries being still strong 
upon her. Unquestionably the greatest name amongst her 
men of learning during this period is that of the statesman, 
ecclesiastic, poet and scholar, Cormac mac Culinan, who 
was at once king and bishop of Cashel, 1 and one of the most 

1 It was not he, however, who built Cormac's Chapel at Cashel, but 
Cormac Mac Carthy, in the twelfth century. 1 am not sure whether 
Cashel had been formed into an archiepiseopal see at this time, but he is 
certainly called bishop of Cashel. 

419 



420 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

striking figures in both the literary and political history of 
these centuries. 

To him we owe that valuable compilation, so often quoted 
already under the title of " Cormac's Glossary," which is by 
far the oldest attempt at a comparative vernacular dictionary 
made in any language of modern Europe. 1 Of course it has 
been enlarged by subsequent writers, but the idea and much 
of the matter remains Cormac's. In its original conception, it 
was meant to explain and interpret words and phrases which 
in the ninth century had become obscure to Irish scholars, 
and as might be expected, it throws light on many pagan 
customs, on history, law, romance, and mythology. Cormac's 
other literary effort was the compilation of the Saltair of Cashel, 
now most unhappily lost, but it appears to have been a great 
work. In it was contained the Book of Rights, 2 drawn up 
for the readjustment of the relations existing between princes 
and tribes, and still preserved. St. Benignus was said to have 
originally composed in verse a complete statement of the 
various rights, privileges, and duties of the High-king, the 
provincial kings, and the local chieftains. This, like so much 
of ancient and primitive law, was drawn up in verse so as to 
be thus stereotyped for the future, and easily remembered at 
a time when books were scarce. Cormac seems to have 
enlarged, modified, and brought it up to date to suit the 
changing times, and it was subsequently redacted again in 
Brian Boru's day in a sense favourable to Munster.3 The 
king-bishop was a most remarkable man and an excellent 
scholar. He appears to have known Latin, Greek, Hebrew, 
and Danish, and to have been one of the finest Old Gaelic 
scholars of his day, and withal an accomplished poet, though 
his verses are now lost. He was slain in battle in the year 

1 The celebrated Vocabularius S. Galli was, according to Zimmer, the 
work of an Irish monk. 

a Leabhar na gCeart. 

3 It has been most carefully edited and translated in a large volume by 
O'Donovan for the Celtic Society, in 1847 



THE DANISH PERIOD 421 

908, 1 under circumstances so curiously described in the 
fragmentary annals edited by O'Donovan that it may be worth 
repeating here. He was, as we know from other sources, 
betrothed to the Princess Gormfhlaith or Gormly, daughter of 
Flann Sionna [Shinna], king of Meath and High-king of 
Ireland, but determining to enter the Church he returned her 
with her dowry to her father without consummating the 
marriage ; after this he took orders, and rose in time to be 
archbishop of Cashel as well as king of Munster. Gormly, 
however, was married against her will to Cearbhall [Caroll], 
king of Leinster. It was in the year 908 that Flann, the 
High-king, with Caroll king of Leinster, now his son-in-law, 
prepared to meet Munster and to assert by arms his right to 
the presentation of the ancient church of Monasterevan, but it 
seems probable that he also bore the king-archbishop a grudge 
for his treatment of his daughter Gormly. Here is the 
annalistic account of the sequel : — 

DEATH OF CORMAC MAC CULINAN. 2 

" The great host of Munster was assembled by the same two, that 
is, Flaherty, 3 [abbot of Scattery Island, in the Shannon], and Cormac 
[mac Culinan], to demand hostages of Leinster and Ossory, and all 
the men of Munster were in the same camp. . . . And noble am- 
bassadors came from Leinster from Caroll, son of Muirigan [king 
of that province] , to Cormac first, and they delivered a message of 
peace from the Leinstermen, i.e., one peace to be in all Erin until 
May following (it being then the second week in autumn), and to 
give hostages into the keeping of Maenach, a holy, wise, and pious 
man, and of other pious men, and to give jewels and much property 
to Cormac and Flaherty. 

" Cormac was much rejoiced at being offered this peace, and he 
afterward went to tell it to Flaherty and how he was offered it from 

1 903 according to the " Four Masters." 

2 From the fragment copied by Duald Mac Firbis in 1643 from a vellum 
MS. of Mac Egan of Ormond, a chief professor of the old Brehon Law, 
a MS. which was so worn as to be in places illegible at the time Mac 
Firbis copied it ; published by O'Donovan for the Archaeological Society. 
I have altered O'Donovan's translation very slightly. 

3 In Irish, " Flaithbheartach." 



422 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Leinster. When Flaherty heard this he was greatly horrified, and 
't was what he said, 'This shows,' said he, 'the littleness of thy mind 
and the feebleness of thy nature, for thou art the son of a plebeian,' 
and he said many other bitter and insulting words, which it would 
be too long to repeat. 

" The answer which Cormac made him was, 'I am certain,' Cormac 
said, 'of what the result of this [obstinacy of yours] will be, a battle 
will be fought, O holy man,' said he, 'and [I] Cormac shall be 
under a curse for it, and it is likely that it will be the cause of death 
to thee [also].' And when he had said this he came into his own 
tent, afflicted and sorrowful. And when he sat down he took a 
basketful of apples and proceeded to divide them amongst his 
people and said, ' My dear people,' he said, ' I shall never give you 
apples again from this out for ever.' ' Is it so, O dear earthly lord ? ' 
said his people ; 'why art thou sorrowful and melancholy with us ; 
it is often thou hast boded evil for us ? ' 'It is/ [said Cormac,] ' as 
I say, and yet, dear people, what melancholy thing have I said, for 
though I should not distribute apples to you with my own hand, yet 
there shall be some one of you in my place who will.' He after- 
wards ordered a watch to be set, and he called to him the holy, 
pious, and wise man, Maenach, son of Siadhal [Shiel], the chief co-arb 
or successor of Comhghall, and he made his confession and will in his 
presence, and he took the body of Christ from his hand, and he 
resigned the world in the presence of Maenach, for he knew that 
he would be killed in battle, but he did not wish that many others 
should know it. He also ordered that his body should be brought 
to Cloyne if convenient, but if not to convey it to the cemetery of 
Diarmuid, [grand] son of Aedh Roin, where he had studied for a long 
time. He was very desirous, however, of being interred at Cloyne 
cf Mac Lenin. Maenach, however, was better pleased to have him 
interred at Disert Diarmada, for that was one of [Saint] Comhghall's 
towns, and Maenach was ComhghaH's successor. This Maenach, 
son of Shiel, was the wisest man of his time, and he now exerted 
himself much to make peace, if it were possible, between the men of 
Leinster and Munster. 

" Many of the forces of Munster deserted unrestrained. There 
was great noise, too, and dissension in the camp of the men of Mun- 
ster at this time, for they heard that Flann, son of Malachy [High- 
king of Ireland], was in the camp of the Leinster men [helping 
them] with great forces of foot and horse. It was then Maenach 
said, ' Good men of Munster,' said he, ' you ought to accept of the 
good hostages I have offered you to be placed in the custody of pious j 
men till May next, namely, the son of Caroll, king of Leinster, and 
the son of the king of Ossory.' All the men of Munster were saying 



THE DANISH PERIOD 423 

that it was Flaherty [the abbot], son of Inmainen alone who com- 
pelled them to go [to fight] into Leinster. 

" After this great complaint which they made, they came over Slieve 
Mairge from the west to Leithglinn Bridge. But Tibraide, 
successor of Ailbhe [of Emly] , and many of the clergy along with 
him tarried at Leithglinn, and also the servants of the army and the 
horses which carried the provisions. 

" After this trumpets were blown and signals for battle were given 
by the men of Munster,and they went forward till they came to Moy- 
Ailbhe. 1 Here they remained with their back to a thick wood awaiting 
their enemies. The men of Munster divided themselves into 
three equally large battalions, Flaherty, son of Inmainen, and 
Ceallach, son of Caroll, king of Ossory, over the first division; 
Cormac mac Culinan, king of Munster, over the middle division ; 
Cormac, son of Mothla, King of the Deisi, and the King of Kerry, 
and the kings of many other tribes of West Munster, over the third 
division. They afterwards came on in this order to Moy-Ailbhe. 
They were querulous on account of the numbers of the enemy and 
their own fewness. Those who were knowledgable, that is those 
who were amongst themselves, state that the Leinstermen and their 
forces amounted to three times or four times the number of the men 
of Munster or more. Unsteady was the order in which the men of 
Munster came to the battle. Very pitiful was the wailing which was 
in the battle — as the learned who were in the battle relate — the 
shrieks of the one host in the act of being slaughtered and the 
shouts of the other host exulting over that slaughter. There were 
two causes for which the men of Munster suffered so sudden a de- 
feat ; for Ceileachar, the brother of Cingegan, suddenly mounted his 
horse and said, ' Nobles of Munster,' said he, ' fly suddenly from this 
abominable battle, and leave it between the clergy themselves who 
could not be quiet without coming to battle,' and afterwards he 
suddenly fled accompanied by great hosts. The other cause of the 
defeat was : When Ceallach, son of Caroll, saw the battalion in 
which were the chieftains of the King of Erin cutting down his own 
battalion he mounted his horse and said to his own people, ' Mount 
your horses and drive the enemy before you.' And though he said 
this, it was not to really fight he said so but to fly. Howsoever it 
resulted from these causes that the Munster battalion fled together. 
Alas ! pitiful and great was the slaughter throughout Moy-Ailbhe 
afterwards. A cleric was not spared more than a layman, there 



1 The plain where this battle of Bealach Miighna or Ballaghmoon was 
fought is in the very south of the county Kildare, about 2\ miles to the 
north of the town of Carlow. 



424 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

they wore all equally killed. When a layman or a clergyman was 
spared it was not out oi mercy, it was done but out of covetousness, 
to obtain a ransom from them, or to bring them into servitude. 
King Cormac, however, escaped in the van of the first battalion, but 
the horse leaped into a trench and he fell off it. When a party 
of his people who were flying perceived this, they came to the King 
and put him up on his horse again. It was then he saw a foster son 
of his own, a noble of the Eoghanachts, Aedh by name, who was an 
adept in wisdom and jurisprudence and history and Latin ; and the 
King said to him, 'Beloved son,' said he, 'do not cling by me, 
but take thyself out of it as well as thou canst ; I told thee 
that I should be killed in this battle.' A few remained along 
with Cormac, and he came forward along the way on horse- 
back, and the way was besmeared throughout with much blood of 
men and horses. The hind feet of his horse slipped on the slippery 
way in the track of blood, and the horse fell right back and [Cor- 
mac's] back and neck were both broken, and he said, when falling, 
'In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum,' and he gave 
up the ghost ; and the impious sons of malediction came and thrust 
spears through his body, and cut off his head. 

" Although much was the slaying on Moy-Ailbhe to the east of the 
Barrow, yet the prowess of Leinster was not satiated with it, but 
they followed up the rout westwards across Slieve Mairge, and slew 
many noblemen in that pursuit. 

" In the very beginning of the battle Ceallach, son of Caroll, king 
of Ossory, and his son were killed at once. Dispersedly, however, 
others were killed from that out, both laity and clergy. There were 
many good clergymen killed in this battle, as were also many kings 
and chieftains. In it was slain Fogartach, son of Suibhne [Sweeny], 
an adept in philosophy and divinity, King of Kerry, and Ailell, son of 
Owen, the distinguished young sage and high-born nobleman, and 
Colman, Abbot of Cenn-Etigh, Chief Ollav of the judicature of Erin, 
and hosts of others also, quos longum est scribere. . . . 

" Then a party came up to Flann, having the head of Cormac with 
them, and 't was what they said to Flann, ' Life and health, O power- 
ful victorious king, and Cormac's head to thee from us ; and as is 
customary with kings raise thy thigh and put this head under it and 
press it with thy thigh.' Howsoever Flann spoke evil to them, it 
was not thanks he gave them. 'It was an enormous act,' said he, 
' to have taken off the head of the holy bishop, but, however, I shall 
honour it instead of crushing it.' Flann took the head into his hand 
and kissed it, and carried thrice round him the consecrated head of 
the holy bishop and martyr. The head was afterwards honourably 
carried away from him to the body where Meaenach, son of Shiel, 



THE DANISH PERIOD 425 

successor of Comhghall, was, and he carried the body of Cormac to 
Castledermot, where it was honourably interred, and where it per- 
forms signs and miracles. 

"Why should not the heart repine and the mind sicken at this enor- 
mous deed ; the killing and the mangling with horrid arms of this 
holy man, the most learned of all who came or shall come of the men 
of Erin for ever ? The complete master in Gaedhlic and Latin, the 
archbishop most pious, most pure, miraculous in chastity and prayer, 
a proficient in law and in every wisdom, knowledge, and science, a 
paragon of poetry and learning, a head of charity and every virtue, 
a sage of education, and head-king of the whole of the two Munster 
provinces in his time ! " 

Gormly, the betrothed, but afterwards repudiated wife of 
Cormac, was also a poet, and there are many pieces ascribed to 
her. She was, as I mentioned, married to Caroll king of 
Leinster, who was severely wounded in this battle. He was 
carried home to be cured in his palace at Naas, and Gormly 
the queen was constant in her attendance on him. One day, 
however, as Caroll was becoming convalescent he fell to 
exulting over the mutilation of Cormac at which he had been 
present. The queen, who was sitting at the foot of his bed, 
rebuked him for it, and said that the body of a good man had 
been most unworthily desecrated. At this Caroll, who was 
still confined to bed, became angry and kicked her over with 
his foot in the presence of all her attendants and ladies. 

As her father, the High-king, would do nothing for her 
when she besought him to wipe out the insult, and procure her 
separation from so unworthy a husband, her young kinsman 
Niall Gliin-dubh, or the Black-Kneed, took up her cause, 
and obtained for her a separation from her husband and restora- 
tion of her dowry. When her husband was killed, the year 
after this, by the Danes, she married Niall, who in time suc- 
ceeded to the throne as High-king of all Ireland, and who 
was one of the noblest of her monarchs. He was slain in the 
end by the Danes, and the monarchy passed away from the 
houses both of her father and her husband, and she, the 
daughter of one High-king, the wife of another, bewails in 



426 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

her old age the poverty and neglect into which she had fallen. 
She dreamt one night that King Niall stood beside her, and 
she made a leap forwards to clasp him in her arms, but struck 
herself against the bed-post, and received a wound from which 
she never recovered. 1 Many of her poems are lamentations on 
her kinsman and husband Niall. They seem to have been 
current amongst the Highland as well as the Irish Gaels, for 
here is a specimen jotted down in phonetic spelling by the 
Scotch Dean Macgregor about the year 15 12 : 

" Take, grey monk, thy foot away, 
Lift it off the grave of Neill ! 
Too long thou heapest up the clay 
On him who cannot feel. 2 

Monk, why must thou pile the earth 

O'er the couch of noble Neill ? 
Above my friend of gentle birth 

Thou strik'st a churlish heel. 

Let him be, at least to-night, 
Mournful monk of croaking voice, 

Beneath thee lies my heart's delight, 
Who made me to rejoice. 

1 So it is stated in Mac Echagain's Annals of Clonmacnois, but O'Curry 
thinks this is a mistake and that she did recover. 

2 The first verse runs thus in modern Gaelic : 

" Beir a mhanaigh leat do chos 
Tog anois i de thaoibh Neill 
Is ro mhor chuiris de chre 
Ar an te le' luidhinn fein." 

See p. 75 of the Gaelic part of the book of the Dean of Lismore. 

Literally : " Monk, remove thy foot, lift it off the grave of Niall, too long 
heapest thou the earth on him by whom I fain would lie ! 

" Too long dost thou, O monk there, heap the earth on noble Niall. 
Go gently, brown friend, press not the earth with thy sole. 

" Do not firmly close the grave ; sorrowful, cleric, is thy office ; lift [thy 
foot] off the bright Niall Black-knee ; monk, remove thy foot ! 

" The son of the descendant of Niall of the white gold, 'tis not of my 
will that he is bound [in the grave] ; let his grave and stone be left : 
monk, remove thy foot ! 

" I am Gormly, who compose the verse ; daughter of hardy Flann. 
Stand not upon his grave ! Monk, remove thy foot ! " 



THE DANISH PERIOD 42; 

Monk, remove thy foot, I say ! 

Tread not on the sacred ground 
Where he is shut from me away, 

In cold and narrow bound ! 

I am Gormly — king of men 

Was my father, Flann the brave. 
I charge thee, stand thou not again, 

Bald monk, upon his grave." 

Another poet of the ninth century was Flanagan, son of 
Ceallach, king of Bregia. He is quoted by the "Four Masters." 1 
One poem of his, of 112 lines, on the deaths of the kings of 
Ireland, is preserved in the Yellow Book of Lecan. 

Mailmura, of Fahan, whom the "Four Masters" call a great 
poet, was a contemporary of his, and wrote a poem on the 
Milesian Migrations. 2 

Several other poets lived in the ninth century, the chief 
of whom was probably Flann mac Lonain, for the " Four 
Masters " in recording his death style him " the Virgil of 
the Scottic race, the chief ollamh of all the Gaels, the 
best poet that was in Ireland in his time." Eight of 
his poems, containing about one thousand lines, have sur- 
vived. He was from the neighbourhood of Slieve Echtge, 
or Aughty, in South Connacht. One of his poems records 
how Ilbrechtach the harper was travelling over these barren 

1 One of his pieces, quoted by the "Four Masters," shows he was a true 
poet. It is on the death of the king, Aedh Finnliath, who died in 877, and 
runs thus : — 

" Long is the wintry night, 
With fierce gusts of wind, 
Under pressing grief we have to encounter it, 
Since the red-speared king of the noble house lives no longer. 

It is awful to observe 

The waves from the bottom heaving, 

To these may be compared 

All those who with us lament him." 

See O'Curry's " Manners and Customs," vol. ii. p. 96, and " Four Masters " 
sub mi no. 

2 Published by the Irish Archaeological Society in the " Irish Nennius," 
in 1847. 



428 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

mountains along with the celebrated poet Mac Liag, and, 
as they paused to rest on Croghan Head, Mac Liag sur- 
veyed the prospect beneath him, and said, " Many a hill 
and lake and fastness is in this range ; it were a great topo- 
graphical knowledge to know them all." "If Mac Lonain 
were here," said the harper, " he could name them all, and 
give the origin of their names as well." "Let this fellow be 
taken and hanged," said Mac Liag. The harper begged 
respite till next day, and in the meantime Mac Lonain comes 
up and recites a poem of one hundred and thirty-two lines 
beginning — Aoibhinn aoibhinn Echtge ard. 

Amongst other things, he relates that he met a Dalcassian 
— /.<?., one of Brian Boru's people from Clare — at Moy Fine 
in Galway, who had just finished serving twelve months with 
a man in that place, from whom he had received a cow and 
a cloak for payment. On his way home to the Dalcassians 
with his cloak and his cow he met the poet, and said to him — 

" ' Sing to me the history of my country, 
It is sweet to my soul to hear it. 

Thereupon I sang for him the poem, 

Nor did he show himself the least loath : 

All that he had earned — not mean nor meagre — 

To me he gave it without deduction. 

The upright Dalcassians heard of this, 

They received him with honour in their assembly ; 

They gave to him — the noble race — 

Ten cows for every quarter of his own cow.' " 



Mac Lonain was the contemporary of Cormac mac Culinan, 
whom he eulogises. 

Some other poets of great note flourished during the Danish 
period, such as Cormac " an Eigeas," who composed the 
celebrated poem to Muircheartach, or Murtagh of the Leather 
Cloaks, 1 son of the Niall so bitterly lamented by Gormly, on 
the occasion of his marching round Ireland, when he set out 

1 Na ecochal croicinn. 






THE DANISH PERIOD 429 

from his palace at ancient Aileach near Deny, and returned 
to it again after levying tribute and receiving hostages from 
every king and sub-king in Ireland. This great O'Neill well 
deserved a poet's praise, for having taken Sitric, the Danish 
lord of Dublin, Ceallachan of Munster, the king of Leinster, 
and the royal heir of Connacht as hostages, he, understanding 
well that in the interests of Ireland the High-kingship should 
be upheld, positively refused to follow the advice of his own 
clan and march on Tara, as they urged, to take hostages from 
Donagh the High-king. On the contrary, he actually sent 
of his own accord all those that had been given him during 
his circuit to this Donagh as supreme governor of Ireland. 
Donagh, on his part, not to be out-done in magnanimity, returned 
them again to Murtagh with the message that he, into whose 
hands they had been delivered, was the proper person to keep 
them. It was to commemorate this that Cormac wrote his 
poem of two hundred and fifty-six lines : — 

" A Mhuircheartaigh Mheic Neill ndir 
Ro ghabhais giallu Inse-Fdil." l 

But the names of the poets Cinaeth or Kenneth O'Harti- 
gan, and Eochaidh O'Flynn, are the most celebrated amongst 
those of the tenth century. Allusions to and quotations from 
the first, who died in 975, are frequent, and nine or ten of his 
poems, containing some eight hundred lines, have been pre- 
served perfect for us. Of O'Flynn's pieces, fourteen are 
enumerated by O'Reilly, containing in the aggregate between 
seventeen and eighteen hundred lines. In them we find in 
verse the whole early and mythical history of Ireland. We 
have, for instance, one poem on the invasion of Partholan ; 
one on the invasion of the Fomorians ; another on the division 
of Ireland between the sons of Partholan ; another on the 
destruction of the tower of Conaing and the battles between 

"O Muireheartach, son of noble Niall, 
Thou hast taken hostages of Inisfail." 



430 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

the Fomorians and the Ncmcdians ; another on the journey 
of the Nemedians from Scithia and how some emigrated 
to Greece and others to Britain after the destruction of 
Conaire's tower ; another on the invasion of the sons of 
Milesius ; another on the history of Emania built by Cimbaeth 
some three hundred years before Christ, up to its destruction 
by the Three Collas in the year 331. This poet in especial 
mav be said to have crystallised into verse the mythic history 
of Ireland with the names and reigns of the Irish kings, and 
to have thrown them into the form of real history. O'Clery 
in his celebrated Book of Invasions, has drawn upon him very 
largely, quoting, often at full length, no less than twelve of 
his poems. Hence many people believe that he was one 
of the first to collect the floating tribe-legends of very early 
Irish kings, and the race-myths of the Tuatha De Danann and 
their contemporaries, and that he cast them into that historical 
shape in which the later annalists record them, by fitting them 
into a complete scheme of genealogical history like that of the 
Old Testament. But whether all these things had taken solid 
shape and form before he versified them anew we cannot now 
decide. According to O'Reilly and O'Curry this poet died 
in 984, nine years after O'Hartigan ; but M. d'Arbois de 
Jubainville remarks that he has been unable to find out any 
evidence for fixing upon this date. 

A little later lived Mac Liag, whom Brian Boru elevated 
to the rank of Arch-Ollamh of Erin, and who lived at his 
court at Kincora in the closest relationship to him and his sons. 
He has been credited — erroneously according to O'Curry — 
with the authorship of a Life of Brian Boru, which un- 
fortunately has perished, only a single ancient leaf, in the 
hand-writing of the great antiquary Mac Firbis, surviving. 
Several of his poems, however, are preserved, 1 containing 

1 The " Four Masters " thought so highly of Mac Liag's poetry that they 
actually go out of their way to record both the first verse he ever com- 
posed and the last. An extraordinary compliment ! 



THE DANISH PERIOD 431 

between twelve and thirteen hundred lines in all, and are of 
the highest value as throwing light both on the social state 
and the policy of Ireland under Brian. One of his poems 
gives a graphic description of the tribute of Ireland being 
driven to Brian at his palace in Kincora in the present county 
of Clare. The poet went out from the court to have a look 
at the flocks and herds, and when he returned he said to the 
King, " Here comes Erin's tribute of cows to thee, many a fat 
cow and fat hog on the plain before thee." " Be they ever so 
many," said the King, " they shall be all thine, thou noble 
poet." Amongst the other part of the tribute which the 
poet describes as coming in to Brian were one hundred and 
fifty butts of wine from the Danes of Dublin, and a tun 
of wine for every day in the year from the Danes of Limerick. 
He describes Brian as sitting at the head of the great hall 
of Kincora, 1 the king of Connacht sat on his right hand and 
the king of Ulster on his left ; the king of Tir-E6ghain 
[Tyrone] sat opposite to him. At the door-post nearest 
to Brian sat the king of Leinster, and at the other post 
of the open door sat Donough, son of Brian, and Malachy, 2 
king of Meath. Murrough, the king's eldest son who died 
so valiantly at Clontarf, sat in front of his father with his back 
turned to him, with Angus, a prince of Meath, and the king 
of Tirconnell on his left. One of his poems ends with two 
complimentary stanzas to Brian Boru, his son Murrough, his 
nephew Conaing, and Tadhg [Teig] O'Kelly, the king of 
Ui Maine — all four of whom a short time afterwards were left 
stiff and. stark upon the field of Clontarf. 

The shadow of the bloody tragedy there enacted hangs 
heavily over all Mac Liag's later poems and those of his con- 
temporaries, and there are few more pathetic pieces in the 
language than his wail over Kincora left desolate bv the death 

1 Or Kancora, in Irish Ccann Coradh — i.e., " the head of the weir." 

2 In Irish " Maelshcachlainn," often contracted into the sound of 
" M'louglinn," and now always Anglicised Malachy. 



432 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

of almost every chieftain who had gone forth from it to meet 
the Danes. 

" Oh where, Kincora, is Brian the great ! 

Oh, where is the beauty that once was thine ! 
Oh, where are the princes and nobles that sate 
At the feast in thy halls, and drank the red wine. 1 
Where, oh, Kincora ? 

• • • • • 

And where is the youth of majestic height, 

The faith-keeping prince of the Scots ? Even he 

As wide as his fame was, as great as his might, 
Was tributary, oh, Kincora, to me ! 
Me, oh, Kincora. 

They are gone, those heroes of royal birth, 

Who plundered no churches, who broke no trust ; 

'Tis weary for me to be living on earth 
When they, oh, Kincora, lie low in the dust ! 
Low, oh, Kincora. 2 

In the same strain does Mac Gilla Keefe,3 another contem- 
porary poet, lament, in a piece which, according to a 
manuscript quoted by Hardiman, called the " Leabhar Oiris," 

1 Thus Mangan ; in the original — 

" A Chinn-Choradh, caidhi Brian, 
No caidhi an sciamh do bhi ort ; 
Caidhi maithe no meic righ 
Ga n-ibhmis fin ad port ? " 

2 Literally : " O Kincora, where is Brian ? or where is the splendour that 
was upon thee ? Where are the nobles and the sons of kings with whom 
we used to drink wine in thy halls. . . . Where is the man most striking 
of size, the son of the king of Alba who never forsook us ? Although 
great were his valour and his deeds, he used to pay tribute to me (the 
poet), O Kincora. . . . They have gone, side by side, the sons of kings 
who never plundered church ; there shall never be their like in the world 
again, so in my wisdom I testify, O Kincora." 

See Hardiman's " Irish Minstrelsy," vol. ii. p. 196, where the text of this 
poem is published, with a fearful metrical translation which, under the 
influence of Macpherson, calls the Dalcassian princes " the flower of 
Temora " ! which, however, is advantageously used to rhyme with 
Kincora ! 

3 In Irish : " Mac Giolla Caoimh." 



THE DANISH PERIOD 433 

he composed when in the north of Greece, whither he had 
travelled in the itinerant Milesian manner on his way to try 
if he could find the site of Paradise. The poem begins : — 

" Mournful night ! and mournful we ! 
Men we be who know no peace. 
We no gold for strains of pride 

Hold this side the plains of Greece." * 

" ' I remember my setting my face to pay a visit to Brian (Boru) 
and he at that time feasting with Cian, the son of Mulloy, 2 and he 
thought it long my being absent from him.' 

" ' God welcome you back to us/ cried Cian, ' O learned one, who 
comest [back from the north] from the House of O'Neill. Poet, your 
wife is saying that you have almost altogether forsaken your own 
house.' 

" ' You have been away for three quarters of year, except from 
yesterday to to-day.' 'Why that,' said Murrough, son of Brian, 
' is the message of the raven from the ark ! ' 

" ' [Come now] tell us all the wealth you have brought from the 
north,' said Brian, the High-king of the host of Cam i Neid, 'tell 
the nobles of the men of Innisfail, and swear by my hand that you 
tell no lie.' 

"'By the King who is above me,' [said I], 'this is what I brought 
from the north, twenty steeds, ten ounces of gold, and ten score 
cows of cattle.' 

" ' [Why] we, the two of us, shall give him more steeds and more 
cattle [than that] without speaking of what Brian will give,' said 
Cian, the son of Mulloy. 

" ' [And] by the King of Heaven who has brought me into silence 
this night, and who has darkened my brightness, I got ten times as 
much as that at the banquet before Brian lay down. 



1 This verse is an imitation of the original, which runs — 

"Uathmhar [i] an oidhche anoclil 

A chuideacht [ihior-]bhocJit gan bhreig, 
Crodh ni sa[o]ilti dh[ao]ibh air DHUAN 
Air an ttaoibhsi thuaidh do'n nGreig." 

S:e Hardiman's "Irish Minstrelsy," vol. ii. p. 202, where a poetical 
version of this lyric is given in the metre of Campbell's " Exile of Erin " ! 
He does not say from what MS. he has taken this poem. O'Curry is silent 
Oil Mac Gilla Keefe, but O'Reilly mentions another poem of his on the 
provinces of Munster. 
3 In Irish, " Maolmhuadh." 

2 E 



434 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

" ' I gol seven town-lands, Oh, King of the Kings, who hast sent me 
from the west, and a half town-land [besides] near every palace in 
which Brian used to be.' 

"Said Murrough, good son of Brian, 'To-morrow' — and it was 
scarce sensible lor him — 'as much as yon have got last night you shall 
get from me myself, and get it with my love.' " r 

Ma<i Liatr was not at Clontarf himself, but his friend and 
fellow-poet, Errard mac Coise [Cusha] was in the train of 
Malachy, king of Meath, to whom he was then attached. 
This poet gave Mac Liag a minute account of the battle, and 
Mac Liag himself visited the spot before the slain had been 
interred, as we see from another of his poems. In a kind of 
dialogue between him and Mac Coise he makes the latter relate 
to him the names of the fallen, and describe the positions in 
which their dead bodies were found upon the battle-field. 
It is exceedingly probable that it was Mac Liag, perhaps with 
Mac Coise's aid, who compiled that most valuable chronicle 
called the "Wars of the Gael with the Gaill," i.e., of the Irish 
with the Northmen. 2 This narrative bears both external and 
internal evidence of its antiquity, for there is a portion of it pre- 
served in the Book of Leinster, a MS of about the year 1150. 
"The author," says Dr. Todd, who has edited it,3 "was either 

1 I am not sure that I have translated this correctly. 

" Do radh Murchadh deagh-mhac Bhriain 
Air na mharach, 's nior chiall uaidh 
Uiriod a bhfuairis areir 
Geabhair uaim fein 's ni air th-fhuath." 

2 Charles O'Conor ascribes it to him, but neither Keating, the "Four 
Masters," nor Colgan, who all make use of it, mention a word about the 
author. 

3 In the "Master of the Rolls" Series, in 1867. "That the work was 
compiled from contemporary materials," says Dr. Todd, "may be proved 
by curious incidental evidence. It is stated in the account given of the 
Battle of Clontarf that the full tide in Dublin Bay on the day of the battle 
(23rd April, 1014) coincided with sunrise, and that the returning tide at even- 
ing aided considerably in the defeat of the enemy. It occurred to the editor, 
on considering this passage, that a criterion might be derived from it to 
test the truth of the narrative and of the date assigned by the Irish Annals 
to the Battle of Clontarf. He therefore proposed to the Kev. Samuel 
ilaughton, M.D., Fellow of Trinity College, and Professor of Geology in 



THE DANISH PERIOD 435 

himself an eye-witness of the battle of Clontarf, or else compiled 
his narrative from the testimony of eye-witnesses." It is edited 
in 121 chapters, and is sufficiently long to fill over a hundred of 
these pages. Beginning with the earliest Danish invasion at the 
close of the eighth century, it traces the progress of the North- 
men in forty chapters up to the time when Mathgamhain [Mahon] 
and Brian were ruling over the Dalcassians. After that the 
book concerns itself chiefly with the history of Brian, describing 
the deaths of his brother Mahon, and the revenge he took, and 
his gradual but irregular attainment of the High-kingship, he 
being the first of the race of Eber who had reached this dignity 
for hundreds of years. The distress suffered by the Irish at the 
hands of the white foreigners (the Norwegians) and the black 
foreigners (the Danes) — who, by the way, were bitter enemies 
and often fought with each other, even on Irish soil — is graphi- 
cally described. The Northmen put, says the writer, 

" a king [of their own] over every territory, and a chief over every 
chieftaincy, and an abbot over every church, and a steward over every 
village, and a soldier in every house, so that none of the men of Erin 
had power to give even the milk of his cow, or as much as the clutch 



the University of Dublin, to solve for him this problem : ' What was the 
hour of high water at the shore of Clontarf in Dublin Bay on the 23rd of 
April, 1014/ The editor did not make known to Dr. Haughton the object 
he had in view in this question, and the coincidence of the result obtained 
with the ancient narrative is therefore the more valuable and curious." 

Dr. Haughton read a paper on the mathematics of this complex and 
difficult question before the Royal Irish Academy, in May, 1861, in which 
he proved that the tide — a neap tide — was full along the Clontarf shore at 
about 5I1 . 30m. a.m., and that the evening tide was full in about 5I1. 55m. p.m. 
"The truth of the narrative," says Dr. Todd, " is thus most strikingly estab- 
lished. In the month of April the sun rises at from 5I1. 30m. to 4h. 30m. 
The full tide in the morning therefore coincided nearly with sunrise ; a 
fact which holds a most important place in the history of the battle, and 
proves that our author if not himself an eye-witness, must have derived his 
information from those who were. ' None others,' as Dr. Haughton 
observes, ' would have invented the fact that the battle began at sunrise and 
that the tide was then full in. The importance of the time of tide became 
evident at the close of the day, when the returned tide prevented the escape 
v)l the Danes from the Clontarf shore to the north bank of the Lilfev." 



436 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

of eggs of one hen in succour or in kindness to an aged man or to a 
friend, but was forced to preserve them for this foreign steward or 
bailiff or soldier. And though there were but one milk-giving cow 
in the house, she durst not be milked for an infant of one night, nor 
for a sick person, but must be kept for the steward or bailiff or soldier 
of the foreigners. And however long he might be absent from the 
house his share or his supply durst not be lessened : although there 
were in the house but one cow, it must be killed for the meal of one 
night, if the means of supply could not be otherwise procured. . . . 

" In a word," continues the writer in a strain of characteristic 
hyperbole, "although there were an hundred sharp, ready, cool, 
never-resting, brazen tongues in each head, and a hundred garrulous, 
loud-unceasing voices from each tongue, they could not recount nor 
narrate, nor enumerate, nor tell, what all the Gael suffered in 
common, both men and women, laity and clergy, old and young, noble 
and ignoble, of hardship and of injury, and of oppression in every 
house, from these valiant, wrathful, foreign, purely-pagan people. 

" And though numerous were the oft-victorious clans of the many- 
familied Erin," yet could they do nothing against the "untamed, 
implacable hordes by whom that oppression was inflicted, because of 
the excellence of their polished, ample, treble-heavy, trusty, glittering 
corslets, and their hard, strong, valiant swords, and well-rivetted long 
spears, and ready brilliant arms of valour, besides ; and because of 
the greatness of their achievements and of their deeds, their bravery, 
their valour, their strength, their venom, and their ferocity, and 
because of the excess of their thirst and their hunger for the brave, 
fruitful, nobly-inhabited, smooth-plained, sweet-grassy land of Erin, 
full of cataracts, rivers, bays." 

The book ends with the battle of Clontarf and the "return 
from Fingall," /.*., the march of the Dalcassians to their homes 
in Munster. The death of Brian in this great battle fought on 
Good Friday, the 23rd of April, 1 1014, is thus described : — 

1 An ancient Irish missal preserved in the Bodleian contains this petition 
for the Irish king and his army, in its Litany for Easter Eve : " Ut regem 
Hibernensium et exercitum ejus conservare digneris — ut eis vitam et 
sanctitatem atque victoriam dones." If this missal is posterior to 1014 it 
must have been the reminiscence of Clontarf which inspired the prayer for 
the day following the battle. If the missal is older than the battle, then the 
coincidence is curious. The prayer was just a day late. The same missal 
mentions in its Litanies the names Patrick, Brendan, Brigit, Columba, 
Finnian, Ciaran, and St. Fursa, and contains collect, secret and post com- 
munion pro rege [for the Irish king]. 



THE DANISH PERIOD 437 

DEATH OF BRIAN BORUMHA AT CLONTARF. 

"As for Brian, son of Cenneidigh [Kennedy], when the battalions 
joined arms in the battle, his skin was spread for him, and he opened 
his psalter and joined his hands, and began to pray after the battle 
had commenced, and there was no one with him but his own atten- 
dant, whose name was Latean (from whom are the O'Lateans still in 
Munster.) 1 Brian said to the attendant, ' Look thou at the battalions 
and the combat whilst I sing the psalms.' He sang fifty psalms and 
fifty prayers and fifty paternosters, and after that he asked the atten- 
dant how were the battalions. And the attendant answered, ' Mixed 
and closely confronted are the battalions, and each of them has 
come within the grasp of the other, and not louder on my ears would 
be the echo of blows from Tomar's wood if seven battalions were 
cutting it down, than the thud-blows on heads and bones and sculls 
between them.' And he asked how was Murchadh's [Murrough's son's] 
standard, and the attendant said, ' It stands, and many of the banners 
of the Dal Cais [North Munster, i.e., Brian's own men] around it, 
and many heads thrown to it, and a multitude of trophies and spoils 
with heads of foreigners are along with it.' ' That is good news 
indeed,' said Brian. 

"His skin cushion was readjusted beneath him, and he sang the 
psalms and the prayers and the paters as before, and he again asked 
the attendant how the battalions were, and the attendant answered 
and said, 'There is not living on earth the man who could distinguish 
one from the other, for the greater part of the hosts on each side are 
fallen, and those who are alive are so covered with spatterings of 
crimson blood and armour, that a man could not know his own son 
— they are so intermingled.' He then asked how was Murchadh's 
standard. The attendant said it was far from him, and that it passed 
through the battalions westward, and was still standing. Brian said, 
' The men of Erin will be well,' said he, ' so long as that standard 
stands, for their courage and valour shall remain in them all, so long 
as they can see that standard." 

" His cushion was readjusted under Brian, and he sang fifty psalms 
and fifty prayers and fifty paters, and all that time the fighting con- 
tinued. After that he again asked the attendant how went the 
battalions, and the attendant answered, ' It is like as if Tomar's 
wood were after burning its undergrowth and young trees, and that 
seven battalions had been for six weeks cutting them down, and it 
with its stately trees and huge oaks still standing, just so are the 
battalions on both sides, after the greater part of them have fallen leav- 
ing but a few valiant heroes and great chieftains still standing. So arc 

1 Evidently the interpolation of a copyist. 



438 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

the battalions on both sides pierced and wounded and scattered, and 
they are disorganised all round like the grindings of a mill turning 

the wrong way ; and the foreigners are now defeated, and Mur- 
chadh's standard is fallen.' ' That is piteous news,' said Brian ; ' by my 
word, said he, 'the generosity and valour of Erin fell when that stan- 
dard fell ; and truly Erin has fallen of that, for there shall never come 
after him a champion like him. And what the better were I though 
I should escape this, and though it were the sovereignty of the world 
I should attain, after the fall of Murchadh and Conaingand the other 
nobles of the Dal Cais.' 

" ' Woe is me,' said the attendant, ' if thou wouldst take my advice 
thou wouldst get thee to thy horse, and we would go to the camp and 
remain there amongst the gillies, and every one who comes out 
of the battle will come to us, and round us they will rally, for the 
battalions are now mixed in confusion, and a party of the foreigners 
have rejected the idea of retreating to the sea, and we know not who 
shall come to us where we now are.' 

" • Oh God ; boy,' said Brian, ' flight becomes me not, and I myself 
know that I shall not go from here alive, and what should it profit 
me though I did, for Aoibheall [Eevil] 1 of Craig Liath [Lee-a], came 
to me last night,' said he, ' and she told me that the first of my sons 
whom I should see this day would be he who should succeed me in 
the sovereignty, and that is Donough, 2 and go thou OLatean,' said he, 
' and take these steeds with thee, and receive my blessing and carry 
out my will after me, that is to say, my body and soul to God and to 
St. Patrick, and that I am to be carried to Armagh, and my blessing 
to Donough for discharging my last bequests after me, that is to say, 
twelve score cows to be given to the co-arb of Patrick and the Society 
of Armagh, and their own proper dues to Killaloe and tjie Churches of 
Munster, and he knows that I have not wealth of gold or silver, but 
he is to pay them in return for my blessing and for his succeeding 
me. Go this night to Sord [Swords] and desire them to come to- 
morrow early for my body, and to convey it thence to Damhliag of 
Cianan, and then let them carry it to Lughmhagh [Loo-wa, i.e., Louth], 
and let Maelmuire mac Eochadha, the co-arb of Patrick and the 
Society of Armagh come to meet me at Lughmhagh.' 

" While they were engaged in this conversation the attendant per- 
ceived a party of the foreigners approaching them. The Earl 
Brodar was there and two warriors along with him. 

" ' There are people coming towards us here,' said the attendant. 



1 The family banshee of the Royal house of Munster. 

2 In Irish, Donnchadh, pronounced " Dunnaxa," as Murchadh is pro- 
nounced " MurrSxa," in English Murrough 



THE DANISH PERIOD 439 

"What kind of people ?' said Brian. 

" ' Blue stark-naked people,' said the attendant. 

" ' My woe/ said Brian, ' they are the foreigners of the armour, and 
it is not for good they come.' 

"While he was saying this he arose and stepped off his cushion 
and unsheathed his sword. Brodar passed him by and noticed him 
not. One of the three who were there and who had been in Brian's 
service said ' Cing, CingV said he, that is, ' This is the king.' ' No, no ! 
but prist prist,' says Brodar, 'not he,' said he, 'but a noble priest.' 
' By no means,' said the soldier, ' but it is the great king Brian.' 
Brodar then turned round and appeared with a bright gleaming 
battle-axe in his hand, with the handle set in the middle [of the head]. 
When Brian saw him he looked intently at him, and gave him a 
sword-blow that cut off the left leg at the knee and the right leg at 
the foot. The foreigner gave Brian a stroke which crushed his head 
utterly, and Brian killed the second man that was with Brodar, and 
they fell mutually by each other. 

" There was not done in Erin, since Christianity— except the behead- 
ing of Cormac mac Culinan — any greater deed than this. He was, 
in sooth, one of the three best that ever were born in Erin, and one of 
the three men who most caused Erin to prosper,namely,Lugh the Long- 
handed, and Finn mac Cumhail [Cool], and Brian, son of Kennedy ; 
for it was he that released the men of Erin and its women from the 
bondage and iniquity of the foreigners and the pirates. It was he 
that gained five-and-twenty battles over the foreigners, and who 
killed them and banished them. . . In short, Erin fell by the 
death of Brian." 

The "War of the Gael with the Gaill" appears to me to be 
a book which throws a strong light upon the genesis and value 
of the historical saga of Ireland. Here is a real historical 
narrative of unquestionable authority, and of the very highest 
value for the history of these countries, which is contempo- 
raneous, 1 or almost so, with the events which it relates. Its 
accuracy on matters of fact have been abundantly proved from 
Danish as well as from Irish sources. And yet the whole 

1 It is edited from the Book of Lcinster, a MS. which was copied about 
1150, which contains the first 28 chapters, from a vellum of about two 
centuries later, which wants five chapters at the beginning and eight at 
the end, and from a perfect transcript made by the indefatigable Brother 
Michael O'Clery in 1635 "out of the book of Cuconnacht O'Daly," who 
died according to the " Four Masters," in 1139. 



440 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

account is dressed up and bedizened in that peculiarly Irish garb 
which had become stereotyped as the dress of Irish history. 
It contains the exaggeration, the necessary touch of the 
marvellous, and above all the poetry, without which no Irish 
composition could hope for a welcome. 

First as to the exaggeration : the whole piece is full of it. 
A good example is the description of the armies meeting on 
Clontarf : — 

"It will be one of the wonders of the day of judgment to relate 
the description of this tremendous onset. There arose a wild, 
impetuous, precipitate, furious, dark, frightful, voracious, merciless, 
combative, contentious vulture, screaming and fluttering over their 
heads. There arose also the Bocanachs and the Bananachs and the 
wild people of the glens, and the witches and the goblins and the 
ancient birds, and the destroying demons of the air and firmament, 
and the feeble demoniac phantom host, and they were screaming 
and comparing the valour and combat of both parties." 

The reader expected some traditional flourish such as this, 
and the essential truth of the narrative is no whit impaired by it. 

Nor does the miraculous episode of Dunlang O'Hartigan, 
fresh from the embraces of the fairy queen, foretelling to 
Murrough that he must fall, detract from the truth that he 
does fall. Dunlang had promised Murrough not to abandon 
him, and he appears beside him on the very eve of the battle. 
Murrough gently reproaches him and says : — 

nt Great must be the love and attachment of some woman for thee 
which has induced thee to abandon me.' ' Alas, O King,' answered 
Dunlang, 'the delight which I have abandoned for thee is greater, if 
thou didst but know it, namely, life without death, 1 without cold, 



1 I.e., Beside his fairy lover. This incident is greatly expanded in the 
modern MS. story of the Battle of Clontarf, of which there exist numerous 
copies ; in these the gliding of history into romance is very apparent. In 
the modern version the fairy Aoibheall is introduced begging O'Hartigan 
not to fight and promising him life and happiness for two hundred years 
if he will put off fighting for only one day. 

" A Dhunlaing seachain an cath 
Gus an mhaidin amaraeh. 
Geobhair da chcad bliadhan de re 
Agus seachain cath aon-lae. " 



THE DANISH PERIOD 441 

without thirst, without hunger, without decay, beyond any delight of 
the delights of the earth to me, until the judgment, and heaven after 
the judgment, and if I had not pledged my word to thee I would not 
have come here, and, moreover, it is fated for me to die on the day 
that thou shalt die.' 

" ' Shall I receive death this day then ? ' said Murrough. 

"'Thou shalt, indeed,' said Dunlang, 'and Brian and Conaing shall 
receive it, and almost all the nobles of Erin, and Turlough thy son.' 

"'That is no good encouragement to fight,' said Murrough, 'and if 
we had had such news we would not have told it to thee, and moreover,' 
said Murrough, 'often was I offered in hills, and in fairy mansions, 
this world and these gifts, but I never abandoned for one night my 
country nor mine inheritance for them.'" 

Some such touch as this, of the weird and the miraculous, 
the reader also expected. 

As for poetry, the whole piece is full of it. It contains over 
five hundred lines of verse, in poems attributed to Brian Boru 
himself and his brother Mahon, to Maelmhuadh or Molloy, who 
so treacherously slew Mahon, to the sister of Aedh Finnliath 
[Finleea], king of Ireland in 869 ; x to Cormac mac Culinan, 
the king-bishop ; to Cuan O'Lochain, a great poet who died in 
1024 ; to Beg mac De the prophet, and to Columcille, his 
contemporary ; to Colman mac Lenin, the poet-saint ; to Gilla 
Mududa CVCassidy, a poet contemporaneous with Mac Liag ; 
to Mac Liag himself ; to Gilla Comgaill O'Slevin, inciting 
O'Neill against Brian ; to a poet called Mahon 's blind man ; 
to St. Bercan the prophet ; to an unnamed cleric, and to at 
least six anonymous poets. 

I have dwelt at some length upon these peculiarities of 
composition, because I wish to lay stress on the fact that the 
narrative form and the romantic dress in which the early history 
of Ireland is preserved (through the medium of sagas) need not 

1 This is genuine, and is also quoted by the " Four Masters" and O'Clery 
in his Book of Invasions. Probably all the poems are genuine except the 
prophecies and the pieces put into the mouths of the actors, that is of 
Brian, Mahon, Molloy, and the cleric. These were probably composed by 
the writer of the history. 



44-^ LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

detract from its substantial veracity. We can prove the minute 
accuracy of the Clontarf story and there seems scarcely more 
reason to doubt that of the battle of Moyrath, fought in 
Adamnan's time, or possibly the substantial accuracy of the 
battles of Cnoca, or of Moy Leana ; we must, however, 
remember that with each fresh redaction, fresh miraculous 
agencies, and fresh verbiage were added. 

The battle of Clontarf put an end to the dream of a Danish 
kingdom in Ireland, and though numerous bodies of the 
Northmen remained in their sea-coast settlements, and con- 
tinued for many years after this to give much trouble, yet it 
put a stop to all further invasion from the : r mother country, 
and once more the centres of Irish learning and civilisation 
could breathe freely. 









CHAPTER XXXIII 

FROM CLONTARF TO THE NORMAN CONQUEST 

Brian, semi-usurper though he was, was in every sense a great 
statesman as well as a great warrior. He found almost every 
seat of learning in ruins, and every town and palace in Ireland 
a shattered wreck. Before he died he had gone far towards 
restoring them. He rebuilt the monasteries, re-erected the 
churches, refounded the schools. " He sent professors and 
masters to teach wisdom and knowledge," says the history 
from which we have been quoting ; but the schools had been 
hopelessly broken up, the scribes had perished, the books — 
" the countless hosts of the illuminated books of the men of 
Erin " — had been burned and " drowned." Hence he found 
himself obliged to despatch his emissaries and the few men of 
learning who had survived that awful time, " to buy books 
beyond the sea and the great ocean, because," says the history, 

" their writings and their books in every church and in every sanc- 
tuary where they were, were burnt and thrown into water by the 
plunderers from beginning to end [of their invasions], and Brian 
himself gave the price of learning, and the price of books, to every 
one separately who went on this service." " By him were erected 
also noble churches and sanctuaries in Erin . . . many works also, 
and repairs were made by him. By him were erected the church 
of Cell Dalua ' and the church of Inis Cealtra, and the round tower 

1 Killaloe, Inniscaltra, and Toiiigraney. 

443 



444 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

of Tuam Greine, and many other works in like manner. By him 
were made bridges and causeways and high roads. By him were 
strengthened also the duns and fortresses and islands and celebrated 
royal forts of Minister. . . . The peace of Erin was proclaimed by him, 
both of churches and people, so that peace throughout all Erin was 
made in his time. He lined and imprisoned the perpetrators of mur- 
ders, trespass, robbery, and war. He hanged and killed and de- 
stroyed the robbers and thieves and plunderers of Erin. . . . After 
the banishment of the foreigners out of all Erin and after Erin 
was reduced to a state of peace, a single woman came from Torach 
in the north of Erin to Cliodhna in the south of Erin, carrying a ring 
of gold on a horse-rod, and she was neither robbed nor insulted." x 

The bardic schools began to revive again, for the bards too 
had felt the full pressure of the invasion, their colleges had been 
broken up, and many of themselves been slain. One aim of 
the Norsemen was to destroy all learning. " It was not 
allowed," writes Keating, " to give instruction in letters." 
..." No scholars, no clerics, no books, no holy relics, were 
left in church or monastery through dread of them. Neither 
bard nor philosopher nor musician pursued his wonted profession 
in the land." 

The eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, witnessed a 
great revival of art and learning. Indeed, from the reign of 
Brian until the coming of the Normans, Irish metal- work, 
architecture, and letters flourished wonderfully. It is from 
this brief period of comparative rest that the three most 
important relics of Celtic literature now in the world 
date, the Leabhar na h-Uidhre, the Book of Leinster, and 
the Book of Hymns. The eleventh and twelfth centuries 
produced also many men of literature, including the annalist 
Tighearnach who was Abbot of Clonmacnois and died in 

1 On this episode Moore wrote his melody, " Rich and rare were the 
gems she wore." An Irish poet contemporaneous with this event 
celebrated it less poetically — 

" O Thoraigh co Cliodna cais 
Is fail oir aice re a h-ais 
I re Bhriain taoibh-ghil nar thim 
Do thimchil aoin-bhen Eirinn." 



CLONTARF TO THE NORMAN CONQUEST 445^ 

1088 ; and Dubdaleithe, Archbishop of Armagh, who died in 
1065, who wrote Annals of Ireland which are now lost, but 
which are quoted both in the Annals of Ulster and in the 
" Four Masters." The greatest scholar, chronologist, and poet 
of this period is unquestionably Flann, the fear-lei gh'inn or 
head-teacher of the school of Monasterboice, who died in 
1056. Though he is called Flann Mainstreach, or Flann of 
the Monastery, he was really a layman — one proof out of 
many, that the schools and colleges which grew up round 
religious institutions were as much secular as theological. He 
composed a valuable series of synchronisms, in which he 
synchronised the kings of the Assyrians, Medes, Persians, 
Greeks, and the Roman emperors, with the kings of Ireland, 
in parallel columns century by century, and sums up the most 
important portions of his teaching in a poem of some twelve 
hundred lines intended evidently as a class-book for his pupils. 
A piece of more value is one which synchronises the reigns of 
the Irish monarchs with those of the Irish provincial kings and 
the kings of Scotland, from the time of King Laeghaire who 
received St. Patrick, down to the death of Murtough O'Brien 
in 1 1 19, these later years having been completed by some 
other hand. 

No fewer than two thousand lines of Flann's poetry were 
copied into the Book of Leinster less than a hundred years 
after his own death, and there are nearly as many more in 
other manuscripts. They are, however, though composed in 
elaborate metres, anything but creative and imaginative poems. 
The most of them consist of annals or history versified, 
evidently with the intention of being committed to memory, 
because the great ollamhs like Flann were really rather histo- 
rians and philosophers than what we call poets, and they used 
their metrical art, very often though not always, to enshrine 
their knowledge. There is, however — except to the historian — 
nothing particularly inspiriting in a poem of 204 lines on the 
monarchs of Erin and kings of Meath who are descended from 



446 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Niall of the Nine Hostages, giving the names, length of 
reign, and manner of death of each, despite the undoubted 
skill with which the technical difficulties of a thorny metre 
are overcome. 1 Some of his pieces, however, are of more 
living interest, as his poem on the history of Oileach or Ailech, 
the palace of the O'Neills near Derry, in which he takes us 
to the time of the Tuatha De Danann, and in his poem on 
the battles fought by the Kinel Owen. Indeed as O'Curry 
well puts it, 

" Many a name lying dead in our genealogical tracts and which has 
found its way into our evidently condensed chronicles and annals, 
will be found in these poems connected with the death or associated 
with the brilliant deeds of some hero whose story we would not 
willingly lose ; while, on the other hand, many an obscure historical 
allusion will be illustrated and many an historical spot as yet un- 
known to the topographer will be identified, when a proper investi- 
gation of these and other great historical poems preserved in the 
Book of Leinster, shall be undertaken as part of the serious study of 
the history and antiquities of our country." 2 

This summing-up of O'Curry's as to the poems of Flann, is 
one which may be also applied to several of his contemporaries 
and successors, such as Coleman O'Seasnan who died in 1050, 
one of whose poems on the kings of Emania and of Ulster 
contains 328 lines; Giolla Caomhghin [Gilla Keevin], who 
died in 1072, some thirteen or fourteen hundred lines of whose 
poetry has been preserved ; Tanaidhe O'Mulconry, who died in 
1 136 ; Giolla Moduda O'Cassidy, who died in 1 143, and whose 
poems, still extant, amount to nearly nine hundred lines ; and 

1 Compare the first verse in Dcibhidh metre — 

" Midhe Maigen Chlainne Cuind, 
Cain-fhorod Clainne Neill Neart-luind, 
Cride [Cain] Banba Bricce, 
Midc Magh na Mor-chipe." 

I.e., "Meath, the place of the children of Conn, beautiful house of the 
children of Niall, strength-renowned. The heart of celebrated Erin, 
Meath, the place of the great battalions." 

2 O'Curry's " Manners and Customs," vol. ii. p. 156. 



CLONTARF TO THE NORMAN CONQUEST 447 

Giolla-na-naomh O'Dunn who died in 1160, and of whom we 
still possess fourteen hundred verses. 1 

The compositions of two rather earlier poets, Erard mac 
Coise [Cusha] and Cuan O'Lochain possess more interest. 
They died in 1023 and 1024 respectively. Mac Coise's four 
surviving poems and his prose allegory are all of great interest. 
As for Cuan O'Lochain, he was chief poet of Erin in his 
day, and according to Mac Echagain's " Annals of Clonmac- 
nois " and an entry in the Book of Leinster, he and a cleric 
named Corcran were elected to govern Ireland during the 
interregnum which succeeded the death of King Malachy, 
who quietly reassumed, after the death of Brian Boru, the 
High-kingship of which that monarch had deprived him. 
This is a convincing proof of the honour attached to the office 
of « ollamh of all Ireland." 

One of O'Lochain's pieces is of special value, because it 
describes and names every chief building, monument, rath, 
and remarkable spot in and around Tara, both those erected 
in Cormac mac Art's time and those added afterwards ; both 
those which were in ruins when the poet wrote, and those 
which had been described by former authors from the time of 
Cormac till his own. 2 Another poem of his is on the geasa 
[gassa] or tabus of the king of Ireland, and on his prerogatives. 
It was tabu for him to let the sun rise on him when in bed in 
the plains of Tara, or for him to alight on a Wednesday on 
the plain of Bregia, or to traverse the plain of Cuillenn after 
sunset, or to launch his ship on the first Monday after May 
Day, etc. Another is a beautiful poem on the origin of the 
river Shannon, called from a lady Sinann, who ventured near 
Connla's well, a thing tabu to a female — to steal the nuts of 
knowledge. There grew nine splendid mystical hazel trees 



1 There are a great number of other poets of whom only one or two 
poems survive, and others are mentioned as great poets by the annalists, 
of whom not a line has come down to us. 

2 This piece has been published at full length in Petric's " History and 
Antiquities of Tara." 



448 LITERARY HISTORY Of IRELAND 

around this well, and they produced the most beautiful nuts of 
rich crimson colour, and as these lovely nuts, filled full with 
all that was loveliest and most refined in literature, poetry, and 
art, dropped oft' their branches into the well, they raised a 
succession of red shining bubbles. The salmon at the sound 
of the falling nuts darted forward to eat them and afterwards 
made their way down the river, their lower side covered with 
beautiful crimson spots from the effect of the crimson nuts. 
Whoever could catch and eat these salmon were in their turn 
filled with the knowledge of literature and art, for the power 
of the nuts had to some extent passed into the fish that eat 
them. These were the celebrated "eo feasa " [yo fassa], or 
salmon of knowledge, so frequently alluded to by the poets. 
To approach this well was tabu to a woman, but Sinann 
attempted it, when the well rose up and drowned her, and 
carried her body down in a torrent of water to the river which 
was after her called Shannon. 

Altogether about 1,200 lines of Cuan O'Lochain's poetry 
have been preserved. 1 It would be useless for our purpose to go 
more minutely into the history of those pre-Norman poets. 
It is not the known poetry of early Irish poets which, as a 
rule, is of most interest to the purely literary student, but 
rather the unknown and the traditional. 

We must now take a glance at the Irish of this later 
period upon the Continent. 

Those brilliant names in the history of European scholarship 
who distinguished themselves under Charlemagne, his son, and 
his grandsons, Clemens, Dicuil, and Scotus Erigena, who 
all taught in the Court schools, Dungal who taught in Pavia, 
Sedulius who worked in Liittich, Fergal, or Virgil who ruled 
in Salzburg, and Moengal, the teacher of St. Gall, were 

1 There are two different etymologies of the name in a poem on the 
river Shannon of several hundred verses, made by a native of the county 
Roscommon in the eventful year 1798. There is also a different version 
of the origin of the river in a folk tale which I recovered this year from a 
native of the same county. 



CLONTARF TO THE NORMAN CONQUEST 449 

not altogether without successors. It is true that Ireland's 
great mission of instruction and conversion came to a close 
with the eleventh century, yet for two centuries more, driven 
by that innate instinct for travel and adventure which was 
so strong within them, that it resembled a second nature, 
we find Irish monks creating new foundations on the Con- 
tinent, especially in Germany. One of the most noteworthy 
of these was a monk from the present Donegal, Muiredach mac 
Robertaigh, who assumed the Latin name of Marianus Scotus, 
or Marian the Irishman. In 1076 he had succeeded in estab- 
lishing an Irish monastery at Ratisbon, or, as the Germans 
call it, Regensburg, the fame of which rapidly spread, and 
attracted to it many of his countrymen from Ulster, so many, 
that the parent monastery failed to accommodate them ; and a 
branch house, that of St. Jacob, was completed in nil. 
From these points Irish monks penetrated in all directions. 
Frederick Barbarossa, in 11 89, on his way from the Crusades, 
founded even at Skribentium, in what is now Bulgaria, a 
monastery with an Irish abbot. About the same time the 
Irish abbots of Ratisbon are found writing to King Wratislaw 
of Bohemia to facilitate the passage of their emissaries into 
Poland. Under the influence of these two Irish houses, St. 
James of Ratisbon and St. Jacob, quite a number of other 
Irish monasteries were founded, that of Wiirzburg in 11 34, 
Niirnberg in 1140, Constanz in 1142, St. George in Vienna 
in 1 155, Eichstadt in 1183, St. Maria in Vienna in 1200. 

These Irish monks who, in the eleventh, twelfth, and 
thirteenth centuries left the north of Ireland and thus planted 
themselves in Germany, were, says Zimmer, worthy successors 
of those apostles and scholars who laboured from the seventh 
to the tenth century in France, Switzerland, and Burgundy, 
" full of religious zeal, piety, sobriety, and a genuine love of 
learning." * A chronicle of the monastery of Ratisbon, 

1 " Sie waren noch wiirdige Epii^onen jener Glaubensboten unci 
^Gelehrten des 7-10 Jahrhunderts, die wir iia Frankreich kennen lernten ; 

2 F 



450 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

written in 1 185, states that the greater part of all the existing 
documents belonging to the different Irish monasteries which 
sprang from it had been written by Marianus Scotus himself. 
A specimen, writes Zimmer, of his beautiful script and the 
remarkable rapidity of his work may be seen at the Court 
Library of Vienna, where is preserved a copy of St. Paul's 
Epistles in 160 sheets, written by him in 1079, between 
March 23rd and May 17th. Very many of the monks — 
Malachias, Patricius, Maclan, Finnian, and others — who came 
to these monasteries from Ireland brought books with them 
which they presented to the German monasteries. The 
century which succeeded the Battle of Clontarf was the most 
nourishing period of the Irish monks in Germany. In the 
thirteenth century their influence visibly declines. Once the 
English had commenced the conquest of Ireland the mona- 
steries ceased to be recruited by men of sanctity and learning, 
but were resorted to by men who sought rather material 
comfort and a life of worldly freedom. 1 The result was 
that towards the end of the thirteenth and the beginning 
of the fourteenth century most of the Irish establishments 
in Germany came to an end, being either made over to 
Germans, like of those of Vienna and Wiirzburg, or else 
altogether losing their monastic character like that of Nurem- 
berg. 

As for the parent monastery, that of St. James of Ratisbon, 
its fate was most extraordinary, and deserves to be told at 
greater length. It had, of course, always been from its 
foundation inhabited by Irish monks alone, and was known 
as the Monasterium Scotorum, or Monastery of the Irish- 
men. But when in process of time the word Scotus became 
ambiguous, or, rather, had come to be almost exclusively 

voll Glaubenseifer, Frommigkeit, Enthaltsamkeit und Sinn fur Studien " 
(" Preussisches Jahrbuch," January, 1887). 

1 " Propter abundantiam et propter liberam voluntatem vivendi," quotes 
Zimmer. 






CLONTARF TO THE NORMAN CONQUEST 451 

applied to what we now call Scotchmen, 1 the Scotch prudently 
took advantage of it, and claimed that they, and not the Irish, 
were the real founders of Ratisbon and its kindred institu- 
tions, and that the designation monasterium Scotorum proved 
it, but that the Irish had gradually and unlawfully intruded 
themselves into all these institutions which did not belong 
to them. Accordingly it came to pass by the very irony 
of fate — analogous to that which made English writers of 
the last century claim Irish books and Irish script as Anglo- 
Saxon — that the great parent monastery of St. James of 
Ratisbon was actually given up to the Scotch by Leo X. 
in 15 15, and all the unfortunate Irish monks there living 
were driven out ! The Scotch, however, do not seem to 
have made much of their new abode, for though the 
monastery contained some able men during the first century 
of its occupation by them — 

"It exercised," says Zimmer, "no influence worth mentioning 
upon the general cultivation of the German people of that region, 
and may be considered but a small contributor towards mediaeval 
culture in general, for the only share the Scotch monks can really 
claim in a monument like that of the Church of St. James of 
Ratisbon, is the fact of their having collected the gold for its 
erection from the pockets of the Germans. In comparison with 
these how noble appear to us those apostles from Ireland, of 
whom we find so many traces in different parts of the kingdom, 
of the monks from the beginning of the seventh to the end of 
the tenth century" ! 

This monastery was finally secularised in i860. 

1 F. F. Warren, quoted by Miss Stokes in her " Six Months in the 
Appenines," gives a list of twenty-nine Irish monasteries in France, and 
eighteen in Germany and Switzerland, with many more in the Netherlands 
and in Italy. Numberless others founded by the Irish passed into foreign 

hands. 



CHAPTER XXXIV 

SUDDEN ARREST OF IRISH DEVELOPMENT 

The semi-usurpation of Brian Boru, which broke through 
the old prescriptional usage (according to which the High- 
kings of Ireland had, for the preceding five hundred 
years, been elected only from amongst the northern or 
southern Ui Neill, that is, from the descendants of Niall of 
the Nine Hostages), produced no evil effects, but much 
good so long as Brian himself lived ; yet his action was 
destined to have the worst possible influence upon the 
future of Ireland, an evil influence comparable only to that 
caused by the desertion of Tara four centuries and a hah 
before. The High-kingship being thus thrown open, as 
it were, to any Irish chief sufficiently powerful to wrest it 
from the others, became an object of constant dispute and 
warfare, the O'Neills kings of Ulster, the O'Conors of 
Connacht, the O'Briens of Munster, and the princes of 
Leinster, all contended for it, so that from the death of 
Malachy, Brian Boru's successor, there was scarcely a single 
High-king who was not, as the Irish annalists call it, "a 
king with opposition." * Hence despite the immediate 

1 After Malachy reigned Donough O'Brien, son of Brian Boru ; after 
him Diarmuid of Leinster, of the race of Cathaoir Mor ; after him tvvc 
452 



ARREST OF IRISH DEVELOPMENT 453 

revival of art and literature which followed the defeat of the 
Northmen, the country was in many ways politically 
weakened, the inherent defects of the clan system accen- 
tuated, and the land, already much exhausted by the Danish 
wars, 1 was left open to the invasion of the Normans. 

It was in May, 1169, that the first force of these new 
invaders landed, and, aided by the incompetence of a par- 
ticularly feeble High-king, they had so thoroughly estab- 
lished themselves in Ireland by the close of the century, 
that they succeeded in putting an end to the Irish High- 
kingship, under which Ireland had subsisted for over a 
thousand years. Then began that permanent war — very 
different, indeed, from what the Irish tribes waged among 
themselves — which, almost from its very commencement, 
thoroughly arrested Irish development, and disintegrated Irish 
life. 

It is not too much to say that for three centuries after 
the Norman Conquest Ireland produced nothing in art, 
literature, or scholarship, even faintly comparable to what 
she had achieved before. With the Normans came collapse ; 

" Red ruin and the breaking up of laws," 

and all the horrors of chronic and remorseless warfare. 

We must now examine the history of Irish art, as dis- 
played in metal-work, buildings, and illuminated manuscripts. 

That peculiar class of design which Irish artists developed 
so successfully in " the countless hosts of the illuminated 
books of the men of Erin," is not really of Irish origin at 

other O'Briens, then an O'Lochlainn king of Ulster, then O'Conor of 
Connacht, then another O'Lochlainn, and then another O'Conor, King 
Roderick, in whose time the Normans landed. 

1 Although the backbone of the Danish power was broken at Clontarf, 
desultory warfare with them did not cease for long after. Even so late as 
102 1 they were able to penetrate into the city of Armagh for the seventeenth 
time during two hundred years, and burnt the whole city to the ground, 
with its churches and books. Within two years of the battle of Clontarf 
they burned Glendalough and Clonard. 



454 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

all. It is not even Celtic. The late researches of M. 
Solomon Reinach and others into the genuine remains of the 
Celts of Gaul and the Continent have discovered in their orna- 
mentation scarcely a trace at all of the so-called Irish patterns. 
They are in truth not Irish, but Eastern. They seem to 
have started from Byzantium, spread over Dalmatia and 
North Italy, and finally found their way into Ireland. 
The early forms of pre-Christian Irish art show no trace 
whatsoever of those peculiar interlaced patterns and con- 
voluted figures which are usually associated with the name 
of Celtic design. The engraved patterns on the tumulus 
of New Grange, dating from probably about 800 r years 
before the Christian era, and the similar scribings upon 
sepulchral chambers at Louchcrew, Telltown, and other places, 
do not show a particle of interlaced work, but consist for the 
most part of circles with rays, arrangements of concentric 
circles, patterns of double and triple spirals, and lozenges. 
Indeed, it is the spiral, in countless forms and applications, 
which seems to have been really indigenous to the earliest 
inhabitants of Ireland, and with it the interlaced and con- 
voluted figures of non-Irish post-Christian art became blended, 
gradually driving it out. These in their turn perished, degraded 
and abased by admixture with Gothic forms introduced by the 
Normans, whose invasion soon put an end to the development 
of all art in Ireland save that of architecture. 

The so-called Celtic design of Ireland, with its interlaced 
bands, its convolutions, its knots, its triquetras, is really a 
survival of what once, starting from the East, spread over a 
large portion of western and northern Europe, but which 
soon died out there overwhelmed by Gothic and other 
influences ; whilst in Ireland, where it was applied with 
far truer artistic feeling and far finer elaboration than else- 
where, it has been preserved in countless works of stone, 

1 This is the minimum date assigned them by Mr. George Coffey in his 
admirable monograph upon the subject. 



ARREST OF IRISH DEVELOPMENT 455 

bronze, and parchment. A scrutiny of early Scandinavian art 
and of the architectural styles of Italy known as the Latino- 
Barbaro and Italo-Bizantino, with portions of the art of other 
countries, have revealed traces of the so-called Celtic designs 
in places and under circumstances which prove that they can- 
not be — as used to be generally supposed — the work of exiled 
Irishmen. Nevertheless, there is a certain individuality in the 
working out of these designs when brought to perfection by 
Irish hands, which sufficiently distinguishes Irish art from that 
of other countries. For in Ireland the interlaced decoration 
was grafted on to the more archaic and pre-Christian style. 

" The peculiar spirals found on these bronzes of that [pre- 
Christian] time," says Miss Stokes, 1 " the trumpet pattern, the even 
more archaic single-line spirals, zigzags, lozenges, circles, dots, are 
all woven in with interlaced designs, with marvellous skill and sense 
of beauty and charm of varied surface, added to which is an un- 
surpassed feeling for colour where the style admits of colour, as in 
enamels and illumination. Besides all this, the interlacings, taken 
by themselves, gradually undergo a change in character under the 
hand of an Irish artist. They become more inextricable, more 
involved, more infinitely varied in their twistings and knottings, and 
more exquisitely precise and delicate in execution than they are ever 
seen to be on continental work, so far as my experience goes." 

The original pre-Christian art of the Irish Celts, that known 
to Cuchulain and Conor mac Nessa and the heroes of the Red 
Branch, survives only upon a few bronzes and upon the stones 
of a few sepulchral mounds. The tracings upon the sepulchral 
mounds are rude — though we find in some instances evidences 
of designs deliberately worked out to cover a given surface — 
and they mostly consist of recognisable symbols of Sun and 
Fire worship. The bronze sword-sheaths of Lisnacroghera, 
which are magnificent specimens of early Irish art, are a 
development of these patterns, but bear no trace of that inter- 
laced work which was introduced with Christianity. There 
are several other bronze ornaments, evidently pre-Christian, 

1 " Six Months in the Apennines," Introduetory Letter. 



456 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

which exhibit the same kind of designs, notably what appear 
to be two horns of a radiated crown exquisitely decorated by 
spiral lines in relief, and which, said Mr. Kemble, "for beauty 
of design and execution may challenge comparison with any 
specimen of cast bronze-work that it has ever been my 
fortune to see." Miss Stokes, however, has shown that these 
pieces were not cast, but repousse, and consequently, she 
writes — 

" If not the finest pieces of casting ever seen, yet as specimens of 
design and workmanship they are perhaps unsurpassed. The surface 
is here overspread with no vague lawlessness, but the ornament is 
treated with fine reserve, and the design carried out with the pre- 
cision and delicacy of a master's touch. The ornament on the cone 
flows round and upwards in lines gradual and harmonious as the 
curves in ocean surf, meeting and parting only to meet again in 
lovelier forms of flowing motion. In the centre of the circular 
plate below — just at the point or hollow whence all these lines flow 
round and upwards, at the very heart, as it might seem, of the whole 
work— a crimson drop of clear enamel may be seen." 

These beautiful fragments are almost certainly pre-Christian, 
and may even have been worn by Conaire the Great or Conor 
mac Nessa. They represent a variety of design which stands 
midway between the stone engravings and the art of the early 
Christians. It is a remarkable fact, amply proven and univer- 
sally acknowledged, that the bronze-work of the pre-Christian 
Irish was never surpassed by their post-Christian metal-work. 
Indeed, while the pagan Irish are proved to have attained great 
skill in the art of design, in working of metals, and especially 
in the art of enamelling by various processes, the specimens of 
the earliest Christian metal-work, such as St. Patrick's bell, 
are exceedingly rude and barbarous — possibly because the 
skilled pagan workmen did not turn their hands to such 
business, and the Christian converts had themselves to do 
the best they could. 

Many of the monks, however, appear to have given them- 
selves up to metal-work, and reached a very high pitch of 



ARREST OF IRISH DEVELOPMENT 457 

excellence in it, as may be seen at a glance by the inspection 
of such master works as the two-handed Ardagh chalice, the 
cross of Cong, and numerous shrines, ciimhdachs [coodachs], 
or book-cases, and croziers. The ornamental designs upon the 
later Christian metal-work reached their highest perfection in 
the tenth and eleventh centuries, and the work of this period 
exhibits about forty different varieties of design, in which 
animal forms are only sparingly used, and in which there is no 
trace of foliate pattern. Indeed, these are not found in Irish 
metal-work before the period of decadence in the thirteenth 
century. Although the best specimens of Christian art in 
metal-work belong to the tenth and eleventh centuries, we 
are not to assume from this that the metal-work of the earlier 
Christian artists did not keep pace with the work of the early 
Christian scribes, who produced such magnificent specimens of 
penmanship and colour in the seventh and eighth centuries. 
They may have done so, but no relics of their work are left. 
According to Dr. Petrie, few, if any, of the more distin- 
guished churches of Ireland were destitute of beautiful metal- 
work in the shape of costly shrines at the coming of the 
Norseman, as the frequent allusions in the Irish annals show ; 
but scarcely one of these escaped their destructive raids, and 
hence the finest surviving specimens are of a much later 
date than the finest surviving manuscripts, 1 which were 
only destroyed whenever met with, but were not, like the 
costly metal-work, an object of eager and unremitting 
pursuit. 

In sculpture the Irish never produced anything finer than 
their tall, shapely, richly but not over-richly ornamented 

1 The earliest surviving book-shrine, that of Molaise's Gospels, was 
made between the year 1001 and 1025 ; the earliest dated crozier is 967 ; 
the earliest bell-shrine may be assigned to 954. The Cross of Cong dates 
from about 1123. That the earlier Christian craftsmen must have made 
good work, if only it had survived, may be inferred from the fine silver 
chalice of Kremsmiinster, in Lower Austria, dating from between the ye. 11 3 
757 and 781. 



458 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

Celtic crosses. The Ogam-inscribed stones, of which over 
a couple of hundred remain, are perfectly plain and un- 
decorative. Some of the later inscribed tombstones (of which 
some two hundred and fifty remain), contain, it is true, fine 
chisel-work, but the numerous high Celtic crosses, covered 
many of them with elaborate sculpture in relief, with under- 
cutting, and ornamented with the divergent and interlaced 
spiral pattern, show the finest artistic instinct. Most of these 
beautiful works of art are later than the year 900, but hardly 
one is posterior to the Norman invasion, which soon put a stop 
to such artistic luxuries. 

The Irish were not a nation of builders. Most of the early 
Irish houses, even at Tara, were, as we have seen, of wood. The 
ordinary dwelling-house was either a cylindrical hut of wicker- 
work with a cup-shaped roof, plastered with clay and thatched 
with reeds, or else a quadrilateral house built of logs or of clay. 
The so-called city of Royal Tara was, in fact, a vast enclosure, 
containing quite a number of different raths, and houses inside 
the raths. The buildings seem to have been constructed of 
the timbers of lofty trees planted side by side, probably carved 
into fantastic shapes upon the outside, while the inside walls 
were closely interwoven with slender rods, over which a putty 
or plaster of loam was smoothly spread, which, when even and 
dry, was painted in bright colours, chiefly red, yellow, and 
blue. The roofs were formed of smooth joists and cross-beams, 
and probably thatched with rods and rushes, much in the same 
manner as the houses of the peasantry to-day. The floors 
appear to have been of earth, carefully hardened and beaten 
down, and then covered with a coat of some kind of hard and 
shiny mortar. No doubt some very fine barbaric effects were 
realised in these buildings, some of which, as is evidenced by 
the description of Cormac's Teach Midhchuarta, must have 
been immense. There were as many as seven duns, or raths, 
round Tara, each containing within it many houses, and each 
surrounded by a mound, or vallum, planted with a stockade 



ARREST OF IRISH DEVELOPMENT 459 

like a Maori pah. 1 The finest house of all, painted in the 
gayest colours, planted in the sunniest spot, and provided over- 
head with a balcony, was reserved for the ladies of the place, 
and was called the grianan [greeanawn], or sunny house. 

Stone, however, was used in places, at a very early date, 
long before the first century, as may be seen from the stone 
forts of western and south-western Ireland, huge structures of 
which one of the best known is Dun-Angus, in the Isle of 
Arran, but there was no knowledge of mortar. Masonry was 
also used occasionally by the early monks in constructing their 
little clochans, or beehive cells, and their oratories, with rounded 
roofs, built without a vestige of an arch, the whole surrounded 
by an uncemented stone wall, or cashel. 

The Irish do not seem to have done much in stone-work 
until the Danish invasions forced them to construct the round 
towers in which to take shelter when the enemy was upon 
them, saving thus their jewels, books, and shrines. The 
Danes, who made rapid marches across the country, could 
not burn these towers nor throw them down, nor could they 
spend the time necessary to reduce them by famine, lest the 
country should be roused behind them, and their retreat to 
their ships cut off. The idea and form of the round tower 
the Irish almost certainly derived from the East. In Lord 
Dunraven's "Notes on Irish Architecture" the path of these 
buildings from Ravenna across Europe and into Ireland is 
distinctly shown ; but while only about a score of examples 
survive in the rest of Europe, Ireland alone possesses a hundred 
and eighteen of these curious structures. There are three 
well-marked styles of towers. The doors and windows of 
the earlier ones are primitive and horizontal, but in the later 
ones the rude entablature of the earlier towers has given way 

1 This was the case with most of those earthen cifcumvallations, called 
in different parts of Ireland raths and lisses, and in Hibernian English 
forts or forths. The houses were inside the embankment, which was in 
most cases protected by a wall of stakes planted round its summit. 



460 L 1 TERA R ) ' I IIS Tt )R 1 f OF IRELAND 

to the decorated Romanesque arch, and the beauty and number 
of the arched windows is greatly increased. 

The transition from the horizontal to the round-arched style 
is shown in the Church of Iniscaltra, erected two years after 
the battle of Clontarf, and many years before the true 
Romanesque appeared in England. From that time till the 
coming of the Normans, Irish ecclesiastical architecture — the 
only kind practised, for the Irish did not live in or build castles 
— progressed enormously, and several fine specimens belonging 
to the twelfth century still survive. 

" The remains," writes Miss Stokes, " of a great number of monu- 
ments belonging to the period between the fifth and twelfth centuries 
of the Christian era, have survived untouched by the hand either of 
the restorer or of the destroyer, and in them, when arranged in con- 
secutive series, we can trace the development from an early and 
rude beginning to a very beautiful result, and watch the dovetailing, 
as it were, of one style into another, till an Irish form of Romanesque 
architecture grew into perfection. The form of the Irish Church 
points to an original type which has almost disappeared elsewhere 
— that of the Shrine or Ark, not of the Basilica." 

The Norman invasion, however, put a complete stop to the 
natural development of Irish Romanesque, and changed the 
building of churches into that of castles, in which the Irish 
only copied, so far as they built at all, the pattern of the 
invader. 

The art, however, in which the Irish earliest excelled, and 
in which they have really no rivals in Europe, was in that of 
writing and illuminating manuscripts. The most recent 
authority on the subject, Johan Adolf Brunn in his "Inquiry 
into the Art of Illuminated MSS. of the Middle Ages," 
acknowledges that the fame of the Celtic school, " dating 
from the darker centuries of the Middle Ages, excels that of 
any of its rivals." Westwood, the great British authority, 
declares that were it not for Irishmen these islands would 
contain no primitive works of art worth mentioning, and 
asserts that the Book of Kells is " unquestionably the most 



ARREST OF IRISH DEVELOPMENT 461 

elaborately executed manuscript of so early a date, now in 
existence." Even Giraldus Cambrensis, who came in with 
the early Normans, was struck dumb with admiration of the 
exquisite book shown him at Kildare, which of all the miracles 
with which Kildare was credited was to him the greatest. 
Here, he writes, " you may see the visage of majesty divinely 
impressed, on one side the mystic forms of the evangelists 
having now six, now four, now two wings, on one side the 
eagle, on another the calf, on one side the face of a man, on 
the other of a lion, and an almost infinite quantity of other 
figures. ... A careless glance at the whole," he goes on to say, 
" reveals no particular excellence, but if, looking closer at it, the 
spectator examined the work in detail he would see how extra- 
ordinarily subtle and delicate were the knots and lines, how 
bright and fresh the colours remained, how interlaced and 
bound together was the whole, so that we would feel inclined 
to believe that it could hardly be a human composition but the 
works of angels. In fact," writes Cambrensis, " the oftener 
and closer I inspect it, 1 the more certain I am to be struck with 
something new, with something ever more and more wonder- 
ful." Indeed, the story ran, that such figures and such 
colouring were due to no mere mortal invention, but that an 

1 The whole passage is worth transcribing in the original. " Inter 
numerosa Kildarias miracula nihil mini miraculosius occurrit quam liber 
ille mirandus, tempore Virginis [he means St. Brigit] ut aiurit, angelo 
dictante, consumptus. Hie Majestatis vultum videas divinitus impr^ssum, 
hinc mysticas Evangelistarum formas, nunc senas, nunc quaternas, nunc 
binas alas habentes : hinc aquilam, inde vitulum, hinc hominis faciem, 
inde leonis, aliasque figuras fere infinitas. Quas si superficialiter et usuali 
more minus acute conspexeris, litura potius videbitur quam ligatura, nee 
ullam prorsus attendes subtilitatem. Sin autem ad perspicacius intuendum 
oculorum aciem invitaveris, et longe penitius ad artis arcana et transpene- 
traveris, tarn delicatas et subtiles tarn arctas et artitas, tarn nodosas et 
vinculatim colligatas, tarn que recentibus adhuc coloribus illustratas, notare 
poteris intricaturas, ut vere hsec omnia potius angelica quam humana 
diligentia jam asseveraveris esse composita. Hasc equidem quanto 
frequentius et diligentius intueor semper quasi novis obstupeo semper 
magis ac magis admiranda conspicio." Master of the Kulls series, 
vyl. v., p. 123. 



462 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

angel had appeared to the scribe in his sleep and taught him 
how to make these wondrous drawings, "and thus," adds 
Cambrensis, " through the revelation of the angel, the prayer of 
Brigit, and the imitation of the scribe, that book was written." 

Now Gi raid us Cambrensis, as Johan Adolf Brunn observes, 
" knew to perfection the master-achievements of the non-Celtic 
schools of art of contemporary date," and "although referring 
to a particular work of especial merit," says Brunn, " the testi- 
mony of this mediaeval writer may well be placed at the head 
of an inquiry into the art in general of the Celtic illuminated 
manuscripts, emphasising as it does the salient characteristics 
of the style followed by this distinguished school of illumi- 
nation, its minute and delicate drawing, its brilliancy of 
colouring, and, above all, that amazing amount of devoted and 
patient labour, which underlies its intricate composition, and 
creates the despair of any one who tries to copy them." 

Between six and seven centuries later Westwood expresses 
himself in terms not unlike those of Cambrensis, of the now 
scanty remains of ancient Irish illumination — 

" Especially deserving of notice," he writes, " is the extreme 
delicacy and wonderful precision, united with an extraordinary 
minuteness of detail with which many of these ancient manu- 
scripts were ornamented. I have examined with a magnifying 
glass the pages of the Gospel of Lindisfarne, and the Book of Kells, 
for hours together, without ever detecting a false line or an irregular 
interlacement ; and when it is considered that many of these details 
consist of spiral lines, and are so minute as to be impossible to have 
been executed without a pair of compasses, it really seems a problem 
not only with what eyes but also with what instruments they could 
have been executed. ... I counted in a small space, measuring 
scarcely three quarters of an inch by less than half an inch in width, 
in the Book of Armagh, not fewer than one hundred and fifty-eight 
interlacements of a slender ribbon pattern formed in white lines 
edged with black ones upon a black ground." 1 

The Book of Armagh, as we have seen, was written in 807, 
or perhaps, as the " Four Masters " antedate at this period, in 8 1 2, 

1 " The Miniatures and Ornaments of Anglo-Saxon and Irish MSS." 



ARREST OF IRISH DEVELOPMENT 463 

while the Book of Kells is ascribed, according to the best 
judges, to the close of the seventh century. 

The seventh and eight centuries, before the island was 
disturbed by the Danes, were the most flourishing period 
of the Irish illuminator and scribe. But their schools 
continued to turn out very fine work as late as the twelfth 
century, and Gilbert, in his " Facsimiles of the National 
Manuscripts of Ireland," states that there are perhaps no 
finer specimens of minute old writing extant than those in 
the margins and interlineations of a copy of the Gospels 
written by Maelbrigte Ua Maelruanaigh [Mulroony], in 
Armagh, in 11 38, that is, seventeen years after that city 
had for the last time been burnt and plundered by the 
Danes. 

Like all the other arts of civilised life, that of the illumi- 
nator and decorative scribe was brought to a standstill by the 
Norman warriors, nor do the Irish appear after this period to 
have produced a single page worth the reproduction of the 
artistic palaeographer. The reason of this, no doubt, was that 
the Irish artist in former days could — no matter how septs 
fell out or warring tribes harried one another — count upon the 
sympathy of his fellow countrymen even when they were 
hostile. Under the new conditions caused by the Norman 
settlements in each of the four provinces, he could count on 
nothing, not even on his own life. All confidence was shaken, 
all peace of mind was gone, the very name of so-called govern- 
ment produced a universal terror, and Ireland became, to use a 
graphic expression of the Four Masters, a " trembling sod." 
" No words," writes Mrs. Sophie Bryant, with perfect truth, 
<c could describe that arrest of development so eloquently or so 
lucidly as the facts of Irish art-history." " Since then " [/.*., since 
the Norman invasion], writes Miss Stokes, one of the highest 
living authorities upon this subject, " the native character of 
Ireland has best found expression in her music. No work of 
purely Celtic art, whether in illumination of the sacred writings, 



. r i LITERARY ///STORY OF IRELAND 

or in gold , or bronze, or stone, was wrought by Irish hands after 
that century ;" and as we shall now sec this decay of Irish art 
is reflected in the falling off" of Irish literature, which continued 
languishing until the great revival which took place about the 
\ car 1600. 



CHAPTER XXXV 



FOUR CENTURIES OF DECAY 



For four centuries after the Anglo-Norman, or more properly 
the Cambro-Norman invasion, the literature of Ireland seems 
to have been chiefly confined to the schools of the bards, and 
the bards themselves seem to have continued on the rather cut- 
and-dry lines of tribal genealogy, religious meditations, personal 
eulogium, clan history, and elegies for the dead. There reigns 
during this period a lack of imagination and of initiative in 
literature ; no new ground is broken, no fresh paths entered 
on, no new saga-stuff unearthed, no new metres discovered. 
There is great technical skill exhibited, but little robust 
originality ; great cleverness of execution, but little boldness of 
conception. How closely the bards ran in the groove of their 
predecessors is evident from the number of poems of doubtful 
authorship, ascribed by some authorities to bards of the pre- 
Norman or even Danish period, and by others to poets of the 
thirteenth, fourteenth, or even fifteenth centuries, the work of 
the later period being so very often both in style and language 
scarcely distinguishable from the earlier which it imitates. 

Another characteristic of these four centuries is the number 
of hereditary bards of the same name and family which we find 
generation after generation, each one imitating his predecessor, 

2G 46o 



466 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

and producing his inauguration odes, his eulogies, and his elegies, 
for each succeeding race of chiefs and patrons. 

This period is the post-epic, post-saga period. Probably not 
one of the Red Branch stories was even materially altered 
during it. Stories of the Fenian cycle, however, continued to 
be propagated and improved upon, and no doubt many new 
ones were invented. But there is little or no trace of the com- 
position of fresh miscellaneous saga, and the only poetry that 
seems to have flourished beside the classic metres of the bards is 
the so-called " Ossianic," a good deal of which may, perhaps, 
have assumed something of its present form during this period. 

Some attempt there was at the careful keeping of annals, but 
scarcely any at writing regular history, though the fifteenth 
century produced McCraith's " Exploits of Torlough," to be 
noticed further on. We shall now briefly glance at this period 
age by age. 

The thirteenth century, that succeeding the coming of the 
Normans, is far more barren in literature than the one which 
preceded them. Only five or six poets are mentioned as 
belonging to it, and their surviving poems amount to only a 
few hundred lines, with the exception of those of the great 
religious bard Donogha Mor O'Daly, who died in 1244 "a 
poet," record the " Four Masters," " who never was and never 
shall be surpassed." All his poems extant are of a religious 
character. He was buried in the abbey of Boyle, in the 
county of Roscommon, in which county I have heard, up to a 
few years ago, verses ascribed to him repeated by more than 
one old peasant. It is usually believed that he was a cleric and 
abbot of the beautiful monastery of Boyle, but there is no 
evidence for this, and he may have been in fact a layman. 
Thirty-one poems of his, containing in all some four thousand 
two hundred lines, have been preserved, and for their great 
smoothness have earned for their author the not very happy 
title of the Ovid of Ireland. Here is a specimen of one of his 
shorter pieces, written on his unexpectedly finding himself 



FOUR CENTURIES OF DECAY 46; 

unable to shed a tear after his arriving at Loch Derg on a 
pilgrimage : 

"Alas, for my journey to Loch Derg, O King of the churches and 
the bells ; ' I have come ' to weep thy bruises and thy wound, and yet 
from my eye there cometh not a tear. 1 

" With an eye that moistens not its pupil, after doing every evil, no 
matter how great, with a heart that seeketh only (its own) peace, 
alas ! O king, what shall I do ? 

" Without sorrowfulness of heart, without softening, without con- 
trition, or weeping for my faults, — Patrick head of the clergy, he 
never thought that he could gain God in this way. 

" The one son of Calphurn, since we are speaking of him, ' alas ! O 
Virgin, sad my state ! ' he was never seen whilst alive without the 
trace of tears in his eye. 

" In (this) hard, narrow stone-walled (cell), after all the evil I have 
done, all the pride I have felt. Alas ! my pity ! that I find no tear, 
and I buried alive in the grave. 

" O one-Son, by whom all were created, and who didst not shun 
the death of the three thorns, with a heart than which stone is not 
more hard, 'tis pity my journey to Loch Derg." 

Here is another specimen, a good deal of which I once 
heard from a poor beggarman in the County Mayo, but it is 
also preserved in numerous manuscripts : 

" My son, remember what I say, 

That on the Day of Judgment's shock, 
When men go stumbling down the Mount, 
The sheep may count thee of their flock. 3 

And narrow though thou find the path 
To Heaven's high rath, and hard to gain, 

I warn thee shun yon broad white road 
That leads to the abode of pain. 



1 " Truagh mo thuras ar Loch Dearg 

A righ na gceall a's na gclog, 

Do chaoineadh do chneadh 's do chreacht 

'S nach dtig dear thar mo rosg." 

Sec " Gaelic Journal," vol. iv. p. 199. 

2 " Na treig mo theagasg a mhic 

Cidh baogh'lach la an chirt do chach 
Ag sgaoileadh dhoib 6 an tsliabh 
Rachaidh tu le Dia na ngnis." 

Sec my " Religious Songs of Connacht," p. 28. 



4< 3 /- / TE A\ / R V HISTOR Y OF IRELAND 

For us is many a snare designed, 
To till our mind with doubts and fears. 

Far from the land where lurks no sin, 
We dwell within our Vale of Tears. 

Not on the world thy love bestow, 
Passing as flowers that blow and die ; 

Follow not thou the specious track 
That turns the back on God most hiffh. 

But oh ! let faith, let hope, let love, 
Soar far above this cold world's way, 

Patience, humility, and awe — 

Make them thy law from day to day. 

And love thy neighbour as thyself, 
(Not for his pelf thy love should be), 

But a greater love than every love 
Give God above who loveth thee. 
• . • 

The seven shafts wherewith the Unjust 
Shoots hard to thrust us from our home, 

Canst thou avoid their fiery path, 
Dread not the wrath that is to come. 

Shun sloth, shun greed, shun sensual fires, 

(Eager desires of men enslaved) 
Anger and pride and hatred shun, 

Till heaven be won, till man be saved. 

To Him, our King, to Mary's son 

Who did not shun the evil death, 
Since He our hope is, He alone, 

Commit thy body, soul, and breath. 

Since Hell each man pursues each day, 

Cleric and lay, till life be done, 
Be not deceived as others may, 

Remember what I say, my son." * 

1 Literally : " Do not forsake my teaching, my son, and although danger- 
ous be the Day of Right for all, on their scattering from the Mount, thou 
shalt go with God of the graces. 

"The road to heaven of the saints though to thee it seem narrow, 
slender, hard, yet shun the road of the house of the pains, many a one has 
journeyed to it away from us. 

" Against us was treachery designed, to bring us down from the artificer 



FOUR CENTURIES OF DECAY 469 

The fourteenth century possesses exactly the same charac- 
teristics as the thirteenth, only the poets are more numerous. 
O'Reilly mentions over a score of them whose verses amount 
to nearly seven thousand lines. Of these the best known is 
probably John Mor O'Dugan of whom about 2,600 lines 
survive — important rather for the information they convey than 
for their poetry. His greatest, or at least his most valuable 
piece, is about the tribes and territories of the various districts in 
Meath, Ulster, and Connacht, on the arrival of the Normans, 
and the names of the chiefs who ruled them. 1 In this poem 
he devotes 152 lines to Meath, 354 to Ulster, 328 to 
Connacht, and only 56 to Leinster, death having apparently 
carried him off (in the year 1372) before he had finished his 
researches into the tribes and territories of that district. But 
luckily for us his younger contemporary — Gilla-na-naomh 
O'Huidhrin [Heerin] — took it up and completed it, 2 so that 
the two poems, usually copied together, form a single piece of 
1,660 lines in delbhidh [d'yevee] metre, which has thrown 

of the elements, in banishment from the land of the living in a Valley of 
Tears art thou. 

"To the world give not love, is it not transient the blossom of the 
branches ? do not follow the track of those who are journeying to hell from 
God of the Saints. 

" Hope, faith, and love, let thee have in God forever, humility, and 
patience without anger, truth without deception in thy walk," etc. 

1 It begins — ■ 

" Triallam timchioll na Fodhla, 
Gluaisid fir ar furfhogra, 
As na foidibh a bhfuileam 
Na Coigeadha cuartuigheam." 

The whole has been most ably edited by Dr. O'Donovan for the Irish 
Archaeological Society. 

2 His poem in continuation begins — 

"Tuille feasa ar Erinn oigh, 
Ni maith seanchaidh nach seanoir, 
Seanchas coir uaim don feadhain 
Na sloigh 6'n Boinn bainealaigh." 

"More knowledge on virgin Ireland, not good is an historian unless he 
be an elder, proper history from me to the tribe, the hosts from Boyne of 
the white cattle." 



4;o LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

more light upon names and territories than perhaps any other 
of the same extent. It is, despite the difficult and recondite 
verse, a work mainly of research and not of poetry. The same 
may be said of nearly all O'Dugan's poems, another of which 
called the u Forus Focal," is really a vocabulary in verse of ob- 
solete words, which though of similar orthography have different 
or even contrary meanings. It was in this century the great mis- 
cellaneous collection called the Book of Ballymote was compiled. 
The fifteenth century differs very little in character from the 
preceding one. We find about the same number of poets with 
about the same amount of verses — between six and seven thou- 
sand lines, according to O'Reilly — still surviving, or as O'Reilly 
underrates the number, probably about ten thousand lines. 
The poets were now beginning to feel the rude weight of the 
prosaic Saxon, and Fergal O'Daly chief poet of Corcamroe, 
Maurice O'Daly a poet of Breffny, Dermot O'Daly of 
Meath, Hugh 6g Mac Curtin, and Dubhthach [Duffach] 
son of Eochaidh [Yohee] " the learned," with several more, 
are mentioned as having been cruelly plundered and oppressed 
by Lord Furnival and the English. It was in this cen- 
tury that those most valuable annals usually called the Annals 
of Ulster were compiled from ancient books now lost, 
by Cathal Maguire who was born in 1438. The great 
collection called the Book of Lecan was copied at the 
beginning of this century, and another most important work 
the "Caithreim, or warlike exploits of Turlough O'Brien," 
was written about the year 1459 by John Mac Craith, chief 
historian of North Munster. This though composed in a far 
more exaggerated and inflated style than even the " War of 
the Gael with the Gaill," which it resembles, yet gives the 
most accurate account we have of the struggles of the Irish 
against the English in Munster from the landing of Henry II. 
till the death of Lord de Clare in 13 18. It was at the very 
beginning of this century the hagiographical collection called 
the Leabhar Breac was made. 



FOUR CENTURIES OF DECAY 471 

The sixteenth century cannot properly be said to mark a 
transition period in Irish literature, as it does in the literature 
of so many other European countries. It has, indeed, left 
far more numerous documents behind it than the preceding 
one, but this is mainly due to the fact that less time has 
elapsed during which they could be lost. Their style and 
general contents differ little, until the very close of the 
century, from those of their predecessors. O'Reilly chronicles 
the names of about forty poets whose surviving pieces amount 
to over ten thousand lines. But so many MSS. which were 
in O'Reilly's time in private hands, or which, like the Stowe 
MSS., were unapproachable by students, have since been 
deposited in public libraries or become otherwise accessible, 
that it would, I think, be safe to add at least half as much 
again to O'Reilly's computation. I have even in my own 
possession poems by nearly a dozen writers belonging to the 
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries whose names are not 
mentioned at all by O'Reilly ; and the O'Conor Don has 
shown me a manuscript copied at Ostend, in Belgium, in 
1 63 1, for one Captain Alexander Mac Donnell, from which 
O'Curry transcribed a thousand pages of poems " of which 
with a very few exceptions," he writes, " no copies are known 
to me elsewhere in Ireland." A considerable number of these 
poems, nearly all of them unknown to O'Reilly, were com- 
posed in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, so 
that this one manuscript alone would largely swell O'Reilly's 
estimate for this period. 

Enormous quantities of books however, belonging to the 
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, have been lost, and are 
still being lost every day. It is an accident that Friar 
O'Gara's T and the O'Conor Don's collection- both compiled 
abroad — have escaped. If, during the middle of the sixteenth 

1 Made in the Low Countries by an exiled friar of the County Gal way, 
a great collection of poetry in the classical metres. See "Transactions 
of the Gaelic Society," 1808, p. 29. 



472 LITERARY HISTORY OF IRELAND 

century, a collector of poetry had gone round transcribing the 
classical poems of that age, he would have found large 
collections preserved in the houses of almost every scion of the 
old Gaelic nobility, with scarcely an exception. On the 
break-up of the houses of the Irish chiefs the archives of their 
families and their manuscript libraries were lost or carried 
abroad. An excellent example of what may be called tribal 
poetry, such as every great Gaelic house possessed, is contained 
in a manuscript in Trinity College, which a Fellow of the 
last century, called O'Sullivan, luckily got transcribed for him- 
self, and which is now in the college library. 1 The collection 
thus made, from about 1570 to 16 15, goes under the title of 
the " Book of the O'Byrnes," and contains sixty or seventy 
poems made by their own family bards and by several of the 
leading bards of Ireland, for the various members of the 
O'Byrnes of Ranelagh near Dublin, and of the O'Byrnes 
of Wicklow, who for three generations maintained their 
struggle with the English, only succumbing in the beginning 
of the seventeenth century. 

Other family records of this nature, which were once 
possessed in every county by the bardic families and by the 
chiefs, have perished by the score. A glance at a few typical 
poems belonging to the O'Byrnes will give a good idea of the 
functions of the sixteenth-century bards, and the nature of 
their poems. They are composed on all kinds of subjects 

1 H. 1. 14, in Trinity College. It is copied unfortunately by one of the 
most incompetent of scribes, and is full of mistakes of all kinds. The 
poets who wrote for the O'Byrnes were Rory Mac Craith, Owen O'Coffey, 
Mahon O'Higinn, Donal Mac Keogh, Niall O'Rooney, Angus O'Daly, 
John O'Higinn, Eochaidh O'Hussey, Maoileachlainn O'Coffey, T. 
O'Mulconry, Donogha Mac Keogh, and others. A copy of the " Book of 
the O'Byrnes" was in possession of the O'Byrnes of Cabinteely, near 
Dublin, in the beginning of the century. Hardiman and O'Reilly each 
had a copy, but as I have seen the scribe employed by the Royal Irish 
Academy engaged for days in writing out of the wretched copy in Trinity 
College, it is to be presumed that the Council of that body has assured 
itself that these copies have since perished. 



FOUR CENTURIES OF DECAY 473 

connected with the wars, genealogy, and history of the tribe 
and its chiefs. Many are eulogiums, some warnings, some 
political poems